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Archive for the ‘Criticism, Research, and Reviews’ Category

Cover of Margaret Meek's monograph on historical and children’s novelist Rosemary SutcliffAround 1962 Margaret Meek wrote a monograph about Rosemary Sutcliff, only a decade or so into a writing career that was to last for another 30 years.  She spoke of Rosemary choosing names “with a poet’s care”:

Rosemary Sutcliff’s magic has certain recognizable elements; the names of the characters are chosen with a poet’s care, the dogs have a central place and are characterized with the loving attention children recognize and approve. The villains, such as Placidus in The Eagle of the Ninth and Allectus in The Silver Branch are acidly etched, although there is more reliance on traditional enmity and feud than on personal evil to provide the dark side. Episodic characters, singly or in groups, have a miniaturist’s clarity of outline. Pandarus, the gladiator with his rose in the battle, Galerius the surgeon, the garrulous household slaves, soldiers at a firelit cockfight or warriors at a feast, all are equally memorable.

Others more involved in the developing action, commanding officers, wise men of the tribes, outcasts, especially Guern the Hunter, Evicatos of the Spear and Brother Ninnias, have a legendary quality. Tradui the Chieftain at the making of New Spears, Bruni, dressed in the war gear of a Jutish hero dying as the wild geese fly south, blind Flavian, killed at the hands of marauding Saxons, all carry a dignity and heroism that link this series of tales with the legends Miss Sutcliff loves to tell. Indeed, part of the difficulty in evaluating the achievement of these books comes from the thickly woven texture which is as closely wrought as in many adult novels of quality.

  • Source: Margaret Meek (1962). Rosemary Sutcliff. New York: Henry Z. Walck
  • list of most main characters in Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels. re-tellings and books

(First posted 30 March, 2010; revised,  24 March, 2014)

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I once found that an editor of Rosemary Sutcliff once wrote (I could not for a long time locate the source, a website on ancient history, but see Anne’s comment below):

 I knew Rosemary as a friend and, briefly, as her editor…most of her best writing was done in the 50s and 60s, beginning with The Eagle of the Ninth and ending with The Mark of the Horse Lord, which is my own favourite. What she really wanted to do, however, was to write romantic novels full of sex, but here her experience, and imagination, let her down. She was crippled by Still’s disease, contracted as a child – many of her protagonists have physical disabilities of one kind or another. She had no movement in her legs, and hands whose work (including writing and miniature painting) was done with just a forefinger and a tiny, rudimentary thumb.

She had, as did Henry Treece, a mystical communion with the past, which enabled her both to recreate tiny details, and to confound military historians with her understanding of the art of battle in any situation she cared to devise. Her sense of place was uncanny, in that she could get no nearer to a site than the seat of a car on an adjacent road. Friends often served as her eyes, and also as her researchers, but it was the conclusions she drew from the evidence, and her re-creations of them, that made her contribution to the literature about the ancient world so distinctive. Where she was simply embellishing recorded history, she was no better than anyone else.

She also had one of the rudest senses of humour in anyone I have met.”

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Michael Rosen (writer, poet, performer, broadcaster and Professor of Children’s Literature) recently said about children’s literature:

Most adult readers were made into the readers they are by the ‘repertoire’ of reading they did as children. The link, then, between children’s literature and adult literature is not so much via the writers as through the reading habits of the readers. That said, there are various key children’s literature texts that have informed adult writing – most notably perhaps, the Alice books; although I would guess that much of the readership of crime fiction was inducted into the genre through Enid Blyton.

This set me thinking about two questions:

  • Are most story-tellers made the story-tellers they are by the stories told to them as children?
  • Are most writers made the writers they are by the ‘repertoire’ of what was read to them as children?  (more…)

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Tahar Rahim as a prince of The Seal People in The Eagle film 2011

There is a  brief mention of The Eagle film from Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth in an article by Jonathan Romney about actor Tahar Rahim who played The Seal Prince.

Strangest of all was the Celts-and-Centurions swashbuckler The Eagle, for British director Kevin Macdonald. Rahim played the Seal Prince—shaven-headed, covered from head to foot in loam, and speaking ancient Gaelic.

Prompted by Feona Beoney  on Twitter, I am much taken with the new label ‘celts-and-centurion swashbuckler’, especially the celts-and-centurion phrase (although ‘swashbuckler’ is perhaps not right, since it reeks of pirates and the sea!). Better than sword(s) and sandal.

The Eagle:  Poster of the film of Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth

Source: Tahar Rahim: ‘I’ve always refused to play terrorists’ | The Observer.

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Over at Twitter I am tracking down people who can say #Ireadsutcliff , and their favourite(s). Merrian Weymouth in Australia favours —possibly— Dawn Wind, which was recently reprinted. The Historical Novel Society had this to say of it:

First published in 1961, this reprint keeps its original charm by reproducing the black and white illustrations by Charles Keeping. Dawn Wind represents historical fiction at its best. It was written by an author who delighted readers with her detailed and atmospheric stories. It is equally suitable for both young adult and adult readers. A thoroughly enjoyable book.

The novel starts:

The first paragraph of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dawn Wind

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After “dragging it out as long as (she) could  Claire (The Captive Reader)  has blogged that she has “finally finished reading Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff”.  She writes that “Sutcliff’s memoir of her childhood and early adulthood is delightfully-written but cruelly slim.  I rationed myself, reading only little bits at a time, trying to savour the treat as long as possible”. She goes on:

The danger of childhood memoirs is always that they might descend into that treacly swamp of sentimentality that can only leave the reader feeling queasy and the author, one hopes, embarrassed.  This is decidedly not one of those memoirs.  Sutcliff is affectionate in her remembrances but never boringly nostalgic for days gone by or pitying for the circumstances she faced.  She has a marvellous sense of humour and wonderful eye for detailing, making the reader feel part of the episodes she shares with us.

It was a delight to be reminded of specific passages, such as this one about Rosemary not learning to read and not wanting to (Rosemary Sutcliff could not read until she was about ten):

…I still had my inability to read.  My father now joined the battle, and had small serious talks with me.

‘When you can read to yourself, old girl, you will find a whole new world opening up to you.’

‘Yes, Daddy,’ said I.  Polite but unconvinced.

He resorted to bribery.  I longed to model things.  He bought me a box of ‘Barbola’ modelling clay with all its accompanying paraphernalia, and promised me I should have it when I could read.

‘You can’t go on like this for ever!’ he said.

‘No, Daddy,’ I agreed.  I had every intention of going on like it for ever.

‘Don’t say “No, Daddy”.’

‘No, Daddy.’

The full, enjoyable post is here at The Captive Reader

Banner from The Captive Reader blog

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Writing on The Guardian newspaper’s Children’s Books site, site-member Sophiescribe “loved” Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Mark of the Horse Lord.

The plot was fascinating and gripping, while it still held all the qualities of a time proven children’s classic. Written by the author of the famous The Eagle of the Ninth, it is another trip back into the breathtakingly exciting world of Roman-occupied Britain . I haven’t read The Eagle of the Ninth, but after this, I’m definitely planning on getting it at the earliest opportunity. Phaedrus is a great, but in no means perfect, hero, a very believable character – seeming all the more real for the tough decisions he agonises over. I certainly sympathise with that!

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes I can’t help it. I had a feeling before even reading the first page that this was going to be good, with such an elegant and timeless cover. I wasn’t wrong …

 All in all this was an utterly unforgettable book! I liked almost everything about it, and I’ll definitely be looking out for more of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels!

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