Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain series is historical fiction at its best – excellent historical details, interesting characters, compelling stories, and a seamless blend of fiction with history. Though ostensibly for young adults, these books are excellent for adults. Sutcliff successfully brings the struggle between Rome and the barbarians to life, covering the back-and-forth battle under changing circumstances and across the centuries. Through this, her concern with how her youthful main characters address the first difficult times of their lives links the books together. Their availability varies, but these novels are well worth the effort to track down. The strategic and tactical concerns of each successive defender of civilized Britain, as he struggles to hold back the dark, gives the series an epic sweep that makes the books hard to put down. Dive into any of these books for a first-rate historical recreation, with living, breathing characters who will leave you as passionately wedded to the defense of Britain as they are.
Posts Tagged ‘children’s literature’
Michael Rosen (writer – for children mostly – poet, performer, broadcaster and university professor) commented last year in The Guardian newspaper about Rosemary Sutcliff and her classic historical novel for children and young people The Eagle of the Ninth:
Interesting that she was writing about the end of an empire at the end of …an empire. And does the search for the lost legion echo/refract (Joseph) Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?
Some of us drank in The Eagle of the Ninth two ways: once as a BBC Children’s Hour serial and second time as the book. I can remember hurrying to get home to hear it – moody, dangerous, mysterious – a quest for something real but long gone, a possible solution to an unsolved story…and somehow it had something to do with events that happened a long time ago just where you walked when we were on holiday: on moors, or on wet fields where we were camping. The book made a connection for me between a past and that particular present.
To my shame I had not noticed, to be honest, until now that today is International Children’s Book Day (ICBD). But since 1967, on or around Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday, 2nd April, ICBD is celebrated to “inspire a love of reading and to call attention to children’s books”. Or at least that is the intention. I cannot say I have until this morning felt my attention called. But celebrate children’s books and inspire a love of books we should! The Day is organised by the International Board on Books for Young People, but there is no mention of it at the IBBY UK website.
Looking back to what I posted two years ago, I am tempted to think nothing much has changed. And to remind you all once again that it is also the birthday of the great Emmylou Harris!
International Children’s Book Day today, is suitable to celebrate as well as Hans Christian Andersen, whose birthday it is. This year the international sponsor, Spain, chose the theme ‘Un libro te espera, búscalo!’ which means ‘A book is waiting for you, find it!’. It seems like most people in the UK did not find the day, let alone the waiting book, if the lack of public mention here is an indicator. (Also, for all who share my taste in music, it is the birthday of Emmylou Harris.)
The root of the matter is no secret, yet it defies exact interpretation beyond saying that the vital spark of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, from The Eagle of the Ninth onwards, is the total imaginative penetration of the historical material. The books seem to be written from the inside, so that the reader’s identification with the chief character carries him further into the felt life of the time than many other books which are made up of the skilful but detached articulation of the fruits of research. One feels that Rosemary Sutcliff is less concerned to write historical narrative than to reconstruct, in the child’s response to her creative imagination, a strong feeling for and involvement with the people of this mist-bound, huddling, winter-dark island at the periods when the invaders came, Romans, Saxons, Norsemen.
Source: Margaret Meek (1962) Rosemary Sutcliff. New York, N.Y.: Henry Z. Walck .
Stimulated by an article in The Guardian which recalled Rahere in The Witch’s Brat, I am trying to track down all the nuns, monks and friars in the historical novels and children’s books by Rosemary Sutcliff. Commenters at the Facebook page on Rosemary Sutcliff associated with this blog are helping … can you (if you have not already!)?
In The Guardian today, Imogen Russell Williams writes about memorable holy men – both saintly and sinful – who ‘walk the hushed cloisters of children’s fiction’. Her favourite is from Rosemary Sutcliff‘s work. Rahere’s tomb is at the Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great, in Smithfield, London.
My favourite of all not-quite-fictional monks comes late to his calling – Rahere, Henry I’s one-time jongleur, who later became an Augustinian canon and founded St Bartholomew’s hospital. In The Witch’s Brat, Rosemary Sutcliff creates a seductive, imaginative portrait of a charismatic and difficult man, gifted in demanding the best from people even when it’s almost too painful to give. It’s Rahere who gives Lovel, the titular protagonist, hope that he may become a healer, rather than remaining an unwell burden on the priory that takes him in. He’s dark, slender, encountered first in motley and then in the sober canon’s habit … it dawns on me that perhaps my early monastic yearnings might have had something to do with a hopeless passion for a jester-turned-ascetic.
Other monks she cites include Brother Snail in Pate Walsh’s The Crowfield Curse; a monk in Thom Madley’s fantasy about life in Glastonbury, Marco’s Pendulum; and the abbot in Terry Jones’s ‘gloriously surreal’ Nicobobinus.
The prestigious Carnegie Medal was once won by Rosemary Sutcliff, as well as multiple award-winning Geraldine McCaughrean (who has written more than 160 books, from picture books to adult novels). Interviewed at Red House, the web-based, self-styled ‘home of (buying) children’s books’, she spoke of the influence on her of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction.
Did you have any favourite children’s authors when you were a child and have they influenced your writing at all?
I loved Elyne Mitchell’s Brumby books because I loved all things horsey. One day I shall write a horse book and then all those pony and horse books I read as a child will come into their own.
I also loved Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction – The Eagle of the Ninth, Brother Dusty Feet … – They taught me how a book could take you time travelling to a different age. That must be why I have written so many books set in the past. Adventure is so much easier to come by there.
Rosemary Sutcliff won the Carnegie Medal in 1959, not for either of the books mentioned by McCaughrean, but for The Lantern Bearers. She was runner-up in 1972 with Tristan and Iseult. The Medal is perhaps the UK’s most prestigious prize for writing for children, awarded every year in the UK to the writer of an outstanding book for children. The Library Association started to award the prize in 1936, in memory of the Scottish-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), a great supporter of reading and libraries. The medal is now awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.
Rosemary Sutcliff also won the Boston-Globe Horn Book Award for Tristan and Iseult in 1972; was highly commended by the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1974; won The Other Award for Song for a Dark Queen in 1978; and won The Phoenix Children’s Book Award for The Mark of the Horse Lord in 1985, and The Shining Company in 2010
In a brief review in The Dallas Morning News in 1985 (12 May) Cherie Clodfelter commented that the historical novel for children and young adults, Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff (published in USA by Dutton) was:
… historical fiction at its very best, a blend of fact and fiction. The writing style is immensely informative and engrossing, although the American teenager may lack the knowledge of British history to appreciate the complicated plot and the Scottish idiom. John Graham of Claverhouse (called Bonnie Dundee by his followers) was a Scottish Royalist who died fighting to keep the House of Stuart on the throne. Both the legendary leader whom King James entitled the Viscount Dundee and the period of history where battle was both elegant and horrible is carefully developed to maintain the pace of a suspenseful adventure story.
Responding to an earlier post quoting Margaret Meek on in her eponymous monograph about historical novelist and doyen of children’s literature Rosemary Sutcliff, reader and regular commenter Anne (much more knowledgeable than me about the details of Rosemary’s work. and commentary upon it) posted:
It seems appropriate to add this piece from another critical essay, this one by May Hill Arbuthnot and Zena Sutherland:
The theme of all (Sutcliff’s) stories, as Margaret Meek points out, is “the light and the dark. The light is what is valued, what is to be saved beyond one’s own lifetime. The dark is the threatening destruction that works against it.” In The Lantern Bearers… the blackness of despair is concentrated in the heart of Aquila, a Roman officer….
No briefing of these stories can give any conception of their scope and power, and when young people read them they live with nobility… Nevertheless, these are difficult books, not because of vocabulary problems, but because of the complexities of the plots in which many peoples are fighting for dominance.
Fortunately, Dawn Wind …, one of the finest of the books, is also the least complex. Chronologically it follows The Lantern Bearers, but it is complete in itself and will undoubtedly send some readers to the trilogy. For the fourteen-year-old hero Owain, the light of the world seems to have been extinguished. He finds himself the sole survivor of a bloody battle between the Saxons and the Britons in which his people, the Britons, were completely destroyed. In the gutted remains of the city from which he had come, the only life the boy finds is a pitiable waif of a girl, lost and half-starved. At first Owain and Regina are bound together in mutual misery, but eventually they are united in respect and affection. So when Regina is sick and dying, Owain carries her to a Saxon settlement, even though he knows what will happen to him. The Saxons care for the girl but sell Owain into slavery…. After eleven years, he is freed and sets out at once to find his people and Regina, who has never doubted he would come for her.
So life is not snuffed out by the night. A dawn wind blows and two people start all over again with those basic qualities that have always made for survival…. Rosemary Sutcliff gives children and youth historical fiction that builds courage and faith that life will go on and is well worth the struggle.
Source: May Hill Arbuthnot and Zena Sutherland, “Historical Fiction: ‘The Lantern Bearers’ and ‘Dawn Wind’,” in their “Children and Books”, pub. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1972, pp. 508-9
A newcomer to this blog and associated ‘tweets’ about historical fiction and children’s books by Rosemary Sutcliff is a student of the English Civil War. One of Rosemary Sutcliff‘s historical novels written particularly for adults was The Rider of the White Horse, about Fairfax. The original version had an introduction by the great historical novelist Elizabeth Goudge.
There can be nothing nicer than being asked to write an introduction to a favourite book, but at the same time it is a difficult task. It is like being asked to describe the charm of a face you love. If you did not love the face so much, and even more the person behind the face, it would be easy. But as things are, what can you possibly say? I can only say, baldly and inadequately, that I love this book. It may not be such a great book as Sword at Sunset but it has qualities of poignancy and gentleness that make it unforgettable.
Thomas Fairfax, The Rider of the White Horse, is a man of “scarecrow distinction” and “scarecrow gentleness”, dedicated and uncompromising, a great solider yet, like the Duke of Wellington, never so miserable as in the hour of victory; and again like the great Duke he is tragically unable to return his wife’s love for him. Anne Fairfax, warmly loving and fiercely loyal, has no beauty to compel a man’s passion. She follows her husband to war, he being her world, and he can give her in return merely admiration and tenderness. Their child, little Moll, who also follows her father to war, is one of the dearest of Rosemary Sutcliff‘s children. Who will ever forget little Moll having her tooth out, or little Moll with Dicken, when he gives her the ginger kitten? A younger child, the baby Elizabeth, dies early in the book, but one does not forget her. She is too poignantly described to be forgotten.