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Posts Tagged ‘children’s literature’

US Edition of Rosemary Sutcliff’s  Black Ships Before Troy (2005)

One of the 20th century’s great writers of historical fiction for children died in 1992 from a disabling disease that had confined her to a wheelchair for much of her working life. (Blog editor’s note: actually, she did not die from Still’s disease!). Yet Rosemary Sutcliff produced many outstanding works of fiction over a 40-year-period — most notably her cycle of novels which dealt with the Roman occupation of Britain. The last two books that she completed were children’s versions of Homer.

The first of these, Black Ships Before Troy, her version of the Iliad, is now out. Like all her books, it is an intellectually-taxing read — but it also manages to sort out some of the complicated strands of Homer’s often digressive narrative. This helps children to see the characters of the great protagonists all the more clearly.

The illustrations by Alan Lee do the book a great service. At their best, they have the confident sweep and pomp of Victorian narrative painting.

  • Source: The Economist, December 4, 1993

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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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Julia Eccleshare, expert on children’s and young adult’s fiction and literature (and Book Doctor at The Guardian), recently wrote a piece for theguardian.com with recommendations for historical fiction for children and teenagers which is not about the world wars. Of Rosemary Sutcliff she said:

In her many novels, Rosemary Sutcliff charted the making of Britain from the simple living of the upland shepherds of the Bronze Age in Warrior Scarlet to Elizabethan England in The Queen Elizabeth Story. She concentrated particularly on Roman Britain reflecting the many attitudes and experiences around the coming together of different cultures as the Romans and the indigenous population learned to live together and to blend their two very different ways of life.

In a loose series of titles which includes The Eagle of the Ninth and Dawn Wind Rosemary Sutcliff writes of Romano-British occupation and skirmish but she also details the home life of both sides describing the cooking, weaving and celebrations of the British tribes and the more advanced home comforts of the Roman invaders such as the installation of central heating in their villas.

Other authors she recommended were: Geoffrey TreaseLeon Garfield, Jill Paton Walsh, Berlie Doherty, Sally Nicholls, Adele Geras, John Rowe Townsend, and Melvin Burgess .

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Rosemary Sutcliff  was reviewed with affectionate insight by Veronica Horwell 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 is wholly 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.

Source: The Guardian, 3 August 1992. Used with the author’s permission

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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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For reasons I cannot divine, my Google alert for new items on <Rosmeary Sutcliff> pointed today to a 2011posting at this blog about  her appearance on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs! At that time, a recording of Rosemary Sutcliff’s appearance with Roy Plomley was not available for downloading. It is now, here.

In the usual way on this radio programme, Rosemary Sutcliff talked (in October 1983) about her life and work and chose eight records to take to the mythical BBC Radio desert island. She said she chose her music just because she loved it—not everyone does, especially these PR-obsessed days. Her choices were:

  1. Record 1: Dvorak’s New World Symphony, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, by Istvan Kertesz.
  2. Record 2: “Eternal father strong to save” – Hymn.
  3. Record 3: L’Apres-midi d’une Faune by Debussy. Royal Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Beecham.
  4. Record 4: “We’ll Gather Lilacs” sung by Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth.
  5. Record 5: “The Flowers of the Forest” played by the pipes & drums of the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards.
  6. Record 6: Excerpt from “Under Milk Wood”. Polly Garter’s song.
  7. Record 7: “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams. The Boyd Kneale Orchestra. With Frederick Grinker.
  8. Record 8: “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach. Choir of King’s college, Cambridge, conducted by David Willcocks.
  • If she could only take One Record: The Lark Ascending
  • One Luxury for the island: Roy Plomley refused her request to take her beloved dogs. She chose therefore flowers, “delivered daily by bottle”.
  • One Book for the island: “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling.

Read more about Desert Island Discs, and stream the episode, here

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Listed here is every title by Rosemary Sutcliff, the author and writer of historical fiction and children’s books. (Regular followers—and other visitors—you may like to check that this accords with your understanding. All comments about inaccuracies and additions are very welcome, below)

Eagle of the Ninth and similar

The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), illustrated by C. Walter Hodges
The Silver Branch (1957), illustrated by Charles Keeping
The Lantern Bearers (1959), illustrated by Charles Keeping
The Capricorn Bracelet  (1973), illustrated by Charles Keeping
Three Legions (1980), omnibus edition containing the first three books  (more…)

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That Rosemary Sutcliff followed in the footsteps of children’s writer Geoffrey Trease was the accurate claim of an intriguing article a couple of years ago in The Morning Star (the link I had does not now work, but I have found the article— below —on Wayback Machine). I was moved to write to the editor:

Although you carry a fascinating article yesterday (February 25, 2010) by Farah Mendlesohn about Geoffrey Trease, may I correct a couple of errors of fact? If Rosemary Sutcliff (sic) did indeed “follow” in “Trease’s footsteps”, she started following in the 1950s not the 1960s as stated, with her award-winning Lantern Bearers and The Eagle of the Ninth which were both published in that earlier decade.

Furthermore, in all decades her name was spelled without the ‘E’ … As to the detail about Trease, whilst not a matter of fact, I think it interesting that in one respect Rosemary Sutcliff certainly did not follow in his footsteps. I grew up listening to her, as a close relative. I heard how much she treasured Trease’s work, but I do not think that she shared the political leanings that the article explores.

The man who told the people’s stories

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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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