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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Richard III's grave and skeleton in Leicester

I cannot recall what Rosemary Sutcliff thought about or indeed knew of Richard III— last week it was reported his remains will now be re-buried in Leicester Cathedral, his skeleton having been found under a car park in Leicester City. Over 500 years ago Sir Thomas More was not over flattering. (more…)

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Cover to Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth Original UK edition 1954Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth is rooted in  the history of a real Roman legion. A couple of years back I noted some references about the history from a website that has now disappeared – by one Ross Cowan. He had written that

… to learn more, especially about the evidence for the legion in the period c. AD 118-161, see :

Birley, A. R. The Roman Government of Britain. Oxford: 2005, 228-229.

Birley, E. B. ‘The Fate of the Ninth Legion’ in R. M. Butler (ed.) Soldier and Civilian in Roman Yorkshire. Leicester: 1971, 71-80.

Campbell, D. B. Roman Legionary Fortresses, 27 BC – AD 378. Oxford: 2006, 27-29.

Cowan, R. For the Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare. London: 2007, 220-234 and 271-273.  (more…)

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Since I am a writer, not an historian, I will sacrifice historical accuracy. I really very seldom have to do it, and then it is only a matter of perhaps reversing the order of two events, or something like that. But if it does come to the crunch, I will choose a good story over absolute historical accuracy.

Source: Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff  by Raymond H Thompson (here, on this blog)


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Alkibiades, the hero of Rosemary Sutcliff’s  novel The Flowers of Adonis, was one of the more enigmatic figures of Greek history. When this historical novel ‘for adults’ was published in 1969 by Hodder and Stoughton (costing 35 shillings in old money), Rosemary was inteviewed by The Times  newspaper (Oct 27, 1969).

I was trained at art school, but then the desire to scribble came over me. I got my interest in history from my mother who had a sort of minstrel’s, rather than historian’s knowledge. Inaccurate, but full of colourful legend. I disliked history at school ….

… They do say that to be a successful children’s writer one has to have a large lump of unlived childhood in one. I certainly think I have that.

You have to show children that good does overcome evil, but that does not necessarily mean that the old lady you helped then pays for your ballet lessons! The satisfaction should just be coming from the fact that you have done right.

… It is easier to give a book a historical setting, because children will take things happening then rather than right on their own doorsteps now.

Source: The Times, Oct 27, 1969, p6.

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Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood has been musing about whether the time Britain slid into chaos at the end of the Roman Empire is also a distant mirror of our present crises. (Thank you Janet Webb for alerting me). He concludes a fascinating article:

Well, the fall of Rome serves to remind us that complex societies can, and do, break down. There is rarely one reason. Rather, there are multiple causes that come together in a perfect storm, as they did around 400AD.

But in time society recovers, for societies after all are made by people, and one guesses that the ones that recover quickest are the ones which are most adaptive, and perhaps too the ones with the strongest sense of identity and history – the strongest sense of “group feeling”.

Source: BBC News – Viewpoint: The time Britain slid into chaos.

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What would Rosemary Sutcliff have made of this (pointed out to me on Twitter by Janet Webb)? Perhaps those of you who are archaeologists would have an inkling?

The dead are often described as sleeping, but archaeologists in Cambridgeshire have uncovered a bed on which the body of a young Anglo-Saxon woman has lain for more than 1,300 years, a regal gold and garnet cross on her breast. Three more graves, of two younger women and an older person whose sex has not yet been identified, were found nearby.

Source: Cross and bed found in Anglo-Saxon grave shed new light on ‘dark ages’ | The Guardian.

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I found that a US School – St Sebastian’s in Needham, MA – was encouraging summer reading of Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s historical novel  The Eagle of the Ninth. I was delighted of course, but wondered if the questions would encourage an emotional and reflective, as well as descriptive, reaction to the novel. Am I being churlish?

History 8 – Summer Reading Guide

The Eagle of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff Where does this historical novel take place?

What are the modern day countries that the story takes place in?

In your atlas find each of the places mentioned in the List of Place-Names at the back of the book.

How does these locations relate to the Roman Empire?

Who are the characters in this novel?

How do they fit in to the Roman Empire?

What are some differences between the Roman occupiers and the native residents of the north and the south?

If you have seen the movie, what differences are there from the book?

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Arthurian Fiction

A while back I was alerted by a commenter to “a nice academic site which has reviews of several works of Arthurian fiction”, here. The author is Professor Howard Wisemanof Griffith University in Australia, a theoretical scientist by trade. The Lantern Bearers and Sword of Sunset are reviewed here, and “come off better than most”.

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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff was in Lindsey Davis’s top ten Roman books in The Guardian in February 2009. Davis has written the Falco Roman detective novels.

“Somewhere about the year 117AD, the Ninth Legion, which was stationed at Eboracum, where York now stands, marched north to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes, and was never heard of again.” Hooked? If not, there’s no hope for you. A wonderful novel, for children of all ages.

The full list of books was:

  1. Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jérôme Carcopino
  2. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Lesley Adkins and Roy A Adkins
  3. Rome and Her Empire by Barry Cunliffe
  4. Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Amanda Claridge
  5. The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
  6. Ancient Inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe
  7. The Lost World of Pompeii by Colin Amery and Brian Curran Jr
  8. Roman Britain by Keith Branigan.
  9. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
  10. I, Claudius by Robert Graves

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The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff won the Carnegie Medal in 1959. An American reviewer has said

I discovered Rosemary Sutcliff in my early teens, and she quickly became one of my favorite authors. I can still vividly recapture the magic of reading her books. It was a real pleasure to return to The Lantern Bearers, which I first read when I was about thirteen, and find the magic still intact…

The Lantern Bearers is a wonderful book. Sutcliff possesses a unique gift for character and description, evoking a sense of place and person so intense that the reader can almost see her characters and the world in which they move. She has a matchless ability to establish historical context without a surfeit of the “let’s learn a history lesson now” exposition that mars many historical novels for young people. Her books are never less than meticulously researched, but her recreation of the past is so effortless that one has no sense of academic exercise, but rather of a world as close and immediate as everyday.

…  The Arthurian theme was one of Sutcliff’s favorites: she produced several young adult books on the subject, as well as a beautiful adult novel, Sword at Sunset, to my mind one of the best ever written in this genre. But the Sutcliff‘s Arthur is rooted as much in history as in myth–not just the tragic king of Le Morte d’Arthur or the heroic/magical figure of traditional Arthurian fantasy, but a man who might actually have existed, heir both to the memory of Rome and to the last great flowering of Celtic power in Britain.
…  her enduring popularity … is richly merited: she is, quite simply, one of the best.

Copyright © 1997 Victoria Strauss

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