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Acclaimed internationally for her historical novels and books for children, Rosemary Sutcliff (b. 1920; d. 1992) was the subject of many magazine profiles. Sadly she is no longer here to create pieces like the ‘This much I know’ feature in magazine of The Observer newspaper. But this much she did know, as revealed in her answers  late in her life to Roy Plomley’s questions on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs. Photos of Rosemary Sutcliff, historical novelist and children’s writer

A spinal carriage is like a coffin. It is very uncomfortable. You lie flat out in this ‘thing’, and all you can see the are branches of the trees or the roofs of the houses going by overhead.  It is extremely boring.

I didn’t learn to read for myself until I was very old — I was nine before I could read. I think this was because my mother read aloud to me so much. Chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day.

I think it honestly never occurred to my parents that a child growing up and going through her teens required other young people. I was never allowed to bring friends home. They were very understanding; nobody could have had nicer parents. But they were very sufficient unto themselves.

Miniature painting is cramping. I was a good craftswoman—but I always had this feeling of having my elbows tucked too close to my sides when I was doing it. I gave it up to write. And I could write as big as ever I wanted to, I could use an enormous canvas if I wanted to.

I feel most at home in Roman Britain. I always feel it’s perhaps a little shameful to be quite so at home with the Romans, because they really were a very bourgeois lot, but I do feel very at home with them; I feel, ‘Here I am back at home again’ when I get back into a Roman story.

I think I do believe in reincarnation. I hope I do, because I think it’s the one thing that makes sense, that makes for justice and a really sensible pattern to life.

I can only create from the top of my head, down my right arm, and out of the point of my pen. So, I write in longhand.

I start with an idea; never a plot. I’m not very strong on plots, but I start from a theme, which grows from the idea. I do have a certain amount of framework: I’ve got to know how I’m going to get from the beginning to the end, and a few ports of call on the way.

I do not write to a standard length. I do not know how long a book’s going to be. I find that a book takes its own time and gets to its own proper ending place.

I take great pains that details should be right. I am quite shameless about writing to people—people who know about breeding horses, or whatever it is—and asking a particular question. People are usually very kind about sharing their own expertise. I do rely very much also on the feeling ‘does this smell right’, ‘does it have the right feel to it?’.

I don’t think I’m a particularly masculine kind of woman—although most of my books are told from a male point of view. I can’t write about girls from the inside. I don’t think the absence of sexual encounters is because I’m writing for children—I don’t honestly know why, it’s just happened that way.

I don’t know whose decision it was not to marry. The situation became impossible. My own family was so against it. People’s feelings were very different in those days to what they are now, about anybody with a disability being allowed to have any emotions. Neither of us were very grown up and we just couldn’t cope. So that was that.

Source:  BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs‘.

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From a now discontinued blog by a Canadian, Robin Rowland:

The main theme of many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books is the life of the soldier. Her father was a naval officer and she grew up in a military atmosphere. Although she was physically handicapped and spent part of her life in wheel chair, she captures the uncertain life of the intelligent human being who must become a fighter whether a member of a regular armed force or a warrior band or an individual trying to survive.

Sutlcliff had a unique viewpoint on the military, the insider who is also a somewhat removed observer, a combination of the kid sister although she had no siblings, the know-it-all cousin or neighbor, and the chronicler somewhat like Princess Irulan in Dune. Marcus Aquila Flavius thought he would be a career soldier, then finds the wound in his leg has changed his life….a fact of life facing many soldiers today. His descendent, Aquila, deserts his army to defend his home, becomes a slave and suffers throughout his life with what would, a millenia and half later, be called post traumatic stress disorder. Her soldiers are rounded human beings, with conflicting loyalties mixed with personal and family problems, always facing uncertainty in campaigns.

An academic might say that all this was reflection of the decline of the British Empire. Sutlcliff had liked Kipling as a kid and it could be said that her books are the Kipling stories of that declining empire. But as our society has become more uncertain in the years since she wrote, the books are more relevant than ever.

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Academic John Withrington wrote to The Independent (London) newspaper  (August 20, 1992), to comment on their obituary of Rosemary Sutcliff.

Last year I interviewed Rosemary Sutcliff on the Arthurian theme in her fiction. The published text arrived a matter of days before her death and on re-reading the transcript I was reminded of her vitality and enthusiasm, of an honest approach which combined scholarship with an unsentimental attitude to pain and suffering.

As Julia Eccleshare observed of her writing, allusions to historical sources are present but never signposted, the battle narrative magnificent yet never glorifying the strife it depicts. These traits were most apparent perhaps in her adult novel Sword at Sunset, the ‘autobiography’ of King Arthur, and the work of which she was most proud. But as Sutcliff herself acknowledged, she also had “a feeling for the mending side of life”; and whether writing of the physically and emotionally crippled, or, when following in the footsteps of her beloved Kipling, of the healing which happens when clashing cultures learn to live together, her prose was always characterised by compassion.

She felt that as the years progressed she had become a tougher writer, a belief reinforced by a reading of The Shining Company, itself based upon the poem Y Gododdin, which celebrates the annihilation of an army at Catterick in circa AD600 (sacrifice was always a theme which fascinated her). Yet for all her seriousness, she remained a cheerful and remarkably modest author, seemingly surprised by her success. “You’re always terrified that the books you write are going to go downhill,” she once said. It seems unlikely that those books which remain to be published will disappoint.

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Poor research: I clipped this from a newspaper in 2010, but I did not note which one!

(But see comments below for more details)

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In 1966 Rosemary Sutcliff made a donation to the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi in the USA.  The Sutcliff Collection has a manuscript  and two typescripts for the radio play The New Laird. (Taped in April 1966 and broadcast on 17 May 1966 as part of the BBC Radio Scotland series—Stories from Scottish History. The collection includes a red note-book of research for The Lantern Bearers, and for two unpublished works, The Amber Dolphin and The Red Dragon.

I have never found either published or unpublished the actual stories by those titles. What happened to them may be illuminated by her diaries, which are as yet unpublished. I have not read the notebook at the library.

However, The Amber Dolphin may have become The Capricorn Bracelet (1973). For an early paragraph begins:

Excerpt from The Capricorn Bracelet

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Publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux produced a teachers’ and readers’ guide about the books of Rosemary Sutcliff (that they pubished!). It is undated, covering ” the award-winning trilogy set in Roman Britain as well as Outcast, The Shining Company, Sword Song, Tristan and Iseult, and Warrior Scarlet”. The historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, it says: (more…)

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Rosemary Sutcliff, historical novelist

Rosemary Sutcliff was the subject of a fascinating, insightful article (‘Of  The Minstrel Kind’) in the children’s literature magazine Books for Keeps. First published only in print form, it has for some time been reproduced online.

Margaret Meak was paying tribute to a seventy-year-old Rosemary.

I met Rosemary Sutcliff for the first time thirty years ago in a London hospital where she was recovering from an operation. (more…)

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