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In the summer of 2009, The Daily Telegraph newspaper asked children’s writers and critics what books they would recommend for holiday reading. Acclaimed author Philip Reeve urged what he called classics, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Philip Reeve recommended Rosemary Sutcliff reading

 

Source: The Daily Telegraph, 3 July 2009

Portrait of historical novelist and children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff by Mark Gerson

Author Tony Bradman has today written a lovely piece at The Guardian Books pages about being inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff: “… thanks, Rosemary – you really were an inspiration to that 11-year-old boy”.

I remember being gripped by the story of a young Roman called Marcus and his quest to find the Eagle standard of a legion that marched north and disappeared in The Eagle of the Ninth. From then on I was a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books.

In 1965 I was 11 and in my last year at Junior school. I was living with my mum and older sister in a rented flat in south London – my parents had separated when I was five and got divorced a couple of years later, which was unusual at the time. My dad was working abroad and I hadn’t seen him for several years. He had become a mythical figure, someone I longed for and resented because of his absence.

Then he came back, and soon Saturday mornings were taken up by dad’s weekly “access visits”. By then I was obsessed with history. At school we’d studied the Romans and the Saxons, and I was fascinated by it all. So I made my dad take me to the British Museum as often as possible. My parents were of the world war two generation – dad had been a sailor on HMS Belfast – so he took me to the Imperial War Museum too. Mum told me stories about her time in the Women’s Royal Navy, and about her dad, who had died before I was born – he’d been sent to Australia as a child, then joined the Australian Army in the first world war and fought at Gallipoli.

Then one Saturday, probably on the way home from the British Museum, dad and I stopped at a WH Smith’s so I could spend my pocket money. I bought a Puffin book, attracted by the cover picture of Roman soldiers and the title: The Eagle of the Ninth. I remember being gripped by the story of a young Roman called Marcus, and his quest to find the Eagle standard of a legion that marched north of Hadrian’s wall and never returned. From then on I was a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books.

I can give you lots of reasons why I think she’s a great writer. She’s a terrific storyteller, and could certainly teach Hollywood a thing or two about pace, suspense and cliffhangers. Her central characters are usually underdogs, children or young people with colossal problems to overcome – she herself suffered in childhood from Stills disease, a form of arthritis that left her permanently disabled. And then of course she writes so well, bringing her characters and the past brilliantly to life.

But it was only a few years ago that I realised why I’d been so drawn to The Eagle of the Ninth – the story is really about Marcus looking for his father, a centurion in the lost legion. Marcus wants to know what happened to his dad, and in some way to reclaim him. The shadow of not knowing hangs over Marcus, and I see now that I must have identified with another boy who missed his dad and resented his absence.

It was also then that I realised I had always wanted to write historical fiction. I’d written lots of other stuff, of course – poetry and picture books and Dilly the Dinosaur stories – but then I wrote a short novel about Spartacus, and loved the whole process. I haven’t looked back since – I even wrote a novel called Viking Boy, in which a boy goes looking for his missing father. Now I’ve written Anzac Boys, a story based on what my mum told me about her dad and his experiences at Gallipoli.

So thanks, Rosemary – you really were an inspiration to that 11-year-old boy.

Rosemary Sutcliff, historical novelist and author for children, was once asked whether, as a writer of children’s books, she particularly liked children. Rosemary Sutcliff said:

I like a child or a dog or an adult according to their merits. I am prone to like more dogs on a percentage basis.

Rosemary Sutcliff once told an interviewer:

“At the age of nine…I was not yet able to read…(but) Why, after all, read to yourself when you can get somebody else to read to you?”.

She explained that her mother used to read to her “a rich and somewhat indigestible stirabout of literature” which included the British stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood, myths and legends of the classical world and Scandinavia, The Wind in the Willows (by Kenneth Grahame), The Tailor of Gloucester (by Beatrix Potter), Treasure Island (by R. L. Stevenson), Nicholas Nickleby (by Charles Dickens), Kim Puck of Pook’s Hill (by Rudyard Kipling), and Little Women (by L M Alcott).

  • Source—(2002) B A Drew, 100 More Popular Young Adult Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies. Libraries Unlimited. ISBN 1563089203

The estimable, book-loving people at Slightly Foxed (SF) (who republished Rosemary Sutcliff’s memoir Blue Remembered Hills  in 2012) have turned their minds to Rosemary when reflecting on Valentine’s Day.

Here at SF our first instinct was to quietly ignore the overblown sentimentality of Saint Valentine’s Day but a handful of romantic souls have suggested we mark the occasion in some way, and give a nod to love in this month’s newsletter. Thus we present Rosemary Sutcliff’s heart-breaking account of falling in – and out – of first love from her memoir Blue Remembered Hills.

… As a child Rosemary suffered from the juvenile arthritis known as Still’s Disease, which burned its way through her, leaving her permanently disabled, yet Blue Remembered Hills is the very opposite of a misery memoir. It is a record of the growing up and making of a writer, and it is full of humour, affection, joy in people and the natural world, and the kind of deep understanding that can come out of hard experiences. In some ways, hers was an enchanted childhood, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards, which would later feed into her books.

… After the war was over, in the summer before the great freeze of 1947, along came Rupert, the son of a recently arrived neighbour, invalided out of the RAF, glamorous with darkly flaming red hair and ‘blazingly-golden hazel eyes’, who spoke to her as an equal – ‘the first person to whom it ever occurred that I could be asked out without my parents’. They grew closer and closer, but then Rupert clearly took fright, and eventually had to tell her that he had fallen in love with someone else, breaking her heart.

Fortunately for us, however, Rosemary had just begun to discover writing and before long her first book for children, The Queen Elizabeth Story – ‘written out of heartache, but also out of something set free within myself ’ by that searing experience was accepted by the Oxford University Press.

Blue Remembered Hills

Once he took me to the pictures. It was Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller in I Know Where I’m Going. But mostly we just wandered round the country. We saw a kingfisher blue-flashing upriver on the tawny reed-rustling fringe of Fremington Marshes, read Hassan to each other at the top of Dark Ham woods. On the afternoon beyond all afternoons – it must have been fairly early summer, because the elder blossom was heavy and rank-sweet scented over the whole countryside – we came upon the mouth of a tiny lane turned almost into a tunnel by the hazel bushes arching over it. We were almost past before we saw it, and Rupert said, ‘Ha! The Golden Road to Samarkand!’ and swung the nose of the car round into it at the last instant. Mercifully there was nothing on our tail at the time. And we went on and on, the grassgrown lane leading us, and we following, dazzled by the dapple of sun through the nut leaves overhead, and came out at the gate of a little secret meadow sloping down to the Torridge. Elder-flowers drooped over the gateway; the riverbank was afroth with pink and white balsams; and Rupert found a tiny emerald frog in the grass, and caught it to show me, just for a moment, sitting on his thumb, then let it go again. We had thermos-flask tea, and talked, holding hands, and shared the water-sounds and the elder-scent of the little secret meadow; and nothing else happened, all the long sunshiny, shadow-dappled afternoon. But if it was given me to live over again one afternoon of my life, that would be the one that I should choose.

The odd thing is that neither of us thought of what was happening to us as Falling in Love. We thought that it was something different and special. Everybody in love thinks that their love is special, an experience which nobody else has had before. But we did not think of it as being in love at all, only as being two halves of the same thing. From the first we had a strong sense of relationship, though in the early days it might as well have been a sibling relationship as any other. In those days we both believed in reincarnation, as I rather think I still do, so we tried to rationalise the thing as a link formed in other lives. Perhaps we had been brothers, sisters, lovers, comrades in arms. ‘There is only one love,’ Rupert said, trying to work it out as he went along. ‘All the different kinds of love are just facets of it’…

… Rupert was getting married. Rupert sent me a book. It was only Joan Grant’s latest novel; he and I were both keen readers of her books at that time. That was the final straw. My father, still with a bleak unhappy face, said nothing. My mother did all the talking. Of course I must send the book back, I must, must, must break with Rupert completely. No use protesting, as I did protest, that Rupert and I were friends and one did not break with one’s friends because they got married. She understood too much of the truth to be bought off by that. In the end she cried and told me that she could not desert me, and so, because of her efforts to take my part, I was tearing a gulf between her and my father.

I sent back the book. I wrote to Rupert explaining the whole sorry situation. In a vacuum we might have managed some kind of threefold relationship. In a world full of other people, it could not be done. At least by me.

Then I had a reconciliation with my father. I sat on his knee like a little girl again, his arms round me; even wept a few difficult tears on his Harris tweed shoulder. It was so lovely not to have that silent barrier of ice between us any more. Such a relief to lay down my weapons, not that I had ever had many weapons – only my little wooden sword – and stop fighting. For the moment it almost outweighed all the rest.

Rupert wrote me a last parting letter, accepting my decision – only it was not a decision, just a capitulation to circumstances too strong for me – but insisting, ‘This isn’t the end, even this time round, it isn’t the end, for you and me.’ He was right, too, though except for one very glancing encounter, it was more than twenty years before I saw him again. ‘But that,’ as Kipling would have said, ‘is another story.’ …

… Because of what had happened between Rupert and me, I was a fuller and richer person than I would otherwise have been. I knew that if a pantomime fairy in a gauze ballet skirt had appeared, and offered, with one wave of her tinsel wand, to wipe out the last two years, and with them the grey ache of loss that they had left behind, I would not for one moment have considered accepting her offer. Because of those two years, something in me which, without them, would probably have remained green and unawakened, had had a chance to flower and fruit and ripen. Because of those two years I was going, in some odd way, to be able to write as I would not otherwise have been able to do.

© Rosemary Sutcliff 1983, 2008, 2012

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Rosemary Sutcliff spoke to a ‘Children’s Literature New England’ conference in 1989, in Cambridge (UK). Her contribution was entitled ‘History and Time’. At one point she told an anecdote to indicate that she saw her task as a historical novelist to be to breathe life into the bare bones of the accounts of academic historians and teachers.

Many years ago, when I was sure of myself as only someone scarcely out of their apprenticeship can be, I was talking to an audience of school teachers in the Midlands that are sodden and unkind, when a County Inspector of Education stood up and asked what was my justification for writing historical novels, which he clearly considered a bastard form, instead of leaving the job to legitimate historians who knew what they were talking about. I looked him straight in the eye and said: “Historians and teachers, you and your kind, can produce the bare bones, all in their right order, but still bare bones. I and my kind can breathe life into them. And history is not bare bones alone, but a living process.” Looking back I’m rather shaken at my hardihood, but I still think I was right.

  • Source: Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past by Fiona M. Collins, Judith Graham. Routledge (2013). p 112

The Oxford University Press are the original publishers of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels for children. So it worries me greatly me to learn that in their most recent Junior English Dictionary they have removed a wealth of words about nature, many of which appear in those self-same books—and probably in other more recent children’s books which OUP are happy to profit from. They have removed:

adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.

acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy,porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow

It is also astonishing that they have thrown out such words as:

carol, cracker, holly, ivy, mistletoe

dwarf, elf, goblin

abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, devil, vicar

Apparently they have made room for such words as these instead:

blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue

celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, common sense, debate,

EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic,

allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro

apparatus, food chain, incisor, square number, trapezium, alliteration, colloquial, idiom, curriculum, classify,

chronological, block graph

Source: http://www.naturemusicpoetry.com/news-and-blog/literary-stars-support-naturewords-campaign

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