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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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When the BBC adapted and broadcast Rosemary Sutcliff‘s historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth in 1977, the BBC Radio Times wrote about her approach to children, writing, the Romans and her hero Marcus—’part of me was in love with him’.

Her passion for the Romans stemmed from her childhood. Her mother read aloud to her from books like Rudyard Kipling‘s Puck Of Pook’s Hill.  His three Roman tales entranced her.

I didn’t read myself till the last possible minute, about nine. I was brought up on Arthur Weigall’s Wanderings In Roman Britain and Wanderings In Anglo-Saxon Britain. He mentions this eagle dug up at Silchester and I’ve been fascinated by it since I was five.

(more…)

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Veronica Horwell wrote about the life and writing of historical novelist and writer for children and young adults Rosemary Sutcliff with affectionate insight in The Guardian newspaper shortly after her death in 1992.

Rosemary Sutcliff did not spare the child, the raven and the wolf gorging on the battlefield dead. No softening, or cheapening, of violence. When you opened her books, you went easily with her into the days she described so immediately: she noticed the rhythms of rain on glass as children do, felt the same warm amazement at snow. You might not know what was this cake called a barley bannock they seemed always to eat in her books, but you recognised the domestic concentration at dinner-cooking time.

And then you would gulp her titles—“Please Miss, have you got any more by ‘er?”—past bedtime, in the last of the summer afterglow. You were caught: and she did not let you off the actual shape of life and death. The fear, the physical pain, the disappointments, the ageing, the dying. (There was an afternoon, I remember, when the brutal end of the Norseman warrior Ari Knudson of The Shield Ring bleached out the heat of a holiday sun, and another, bleaker, when nothing seemed real but the Roman legionary, turned renegade, speaking his very last Latin words and saluting The Eagle of the Ninth before fading into another misty life.)

She did not assume you were ever too young to know the powerful, if frightening, truth—that nothing iswholly new, even the brief freshness of a new generation; that continual change, but also repetition, are history. We do not tell children these things so much now: we do not recount the generations. But reading her, you waited excitedly for that Roman ring with a dolphin cut in its emerald which runs in a thread of lineal descent from book to book, from life to life.So history was lives? It was always different, always the same, and the pattern only visible after? Those who read Sutcliff don’t recall formally learning about the gods Adonis, Mithras, Lugh of the Shining Spear and the Christos: we seem always to have known them. Years of art history never made as clear as she did, in two pages, the difference in the souls of cultures between the rigid ornament of Rome and the Celtic patterns that flow and whorl like life itself. You had access through her, as never since through the heritage industry, into time past when it was time present. When the archaeologist Catherine Hills once noted that the battered Roman eagle found at Silchester was probably awaiting the contempt of the scrap furnace, she did sadly, almost apologetically. For her, as for the rest of us, he seemed a talisman of the knowledge of that departed civilisation, restored to his story by Sutcliff. And the Sutcliff story was, as legends are, almost closer to a truth.

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Rosemary Sutcliff’s books are popular in Japan, (although I am not always accurate in judging which cover is which book—on Twitter today I have been told that what I, via Google, thought was The Mark of the Horse Lord was actually The Lantern Bearers …).

I am reminded that I was surprised to discover a few years ago that  Her Imperial Majesty The Empress Michiko of Japan linked Rosemary Sutcliff,  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and Philippa Pearce in the same breath in her keynote speech to the 26th (2001) Congress of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY).

Keep linking children and books…Books are children’s valuable friends and are a help to them. So that children have firm roots within themselves; so that children have strong wings of joy and of imagination; so that children know love, accepting that at times love calls for pain; so that children see and face the challenge of life’s complexities, fully taking on the life given to each, and finally, upon this earth which is our common home, become, one day, true instruments of peace.

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John Rowe Townsend, author, who has died aged 91

Sad today to learn of the death of John Rowe Townsend, albeit aged 91, who The Guardian describe in their obituary as “not only a dominant figure in the academic study of children’s literature, but … a seminal influence on the entire development of modern children’s books.

Rosemary Sutcliff—as historical novelist and children’s book writer—was the subject an essay by him in his 1971 book  A Sense of Story. He observed  that Rosemary Sutcliff’s books amount to  ”a body of work rather than a shelf of novels”.

Day to day, minute to minute, second to second the surface of our lives is in a perpetual ripple of change. Below the immediate surface are slower, deeper currents, and below these again are profound mysterious movements beyond the scale of the individual life-span. And far down on the sea-bed are the oldest, most lasting things, whose changes our imagination can hardly grasp at all. The strength of Rosemary Sutcliff’s main work—and it is a body of work rather than a shelf of novels—is its sense of movement on all these scales. Bright the surface may be, and vigorous the action of the moment, but it is never detached from the forces underneath that give it meaning. She puts more into the reader’s consciousness than he is immediately aware of.

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