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Posts Tagged ‘disability’

The estimable, book-loving people at Slightly Foxed (SF) (who republished Rosemary Sutcliff’s memoir Blue Remembered Hills  in 2012) have turned their minds to Rosemary when reflecting on Valentine’s Day.

Here at SF our first instinct was to quietly ignore the overblown sentimentality of Saint Valentine’s Day but a handful of romantic souls have suggested we mark the occasion in some way, and give a nod to love in this month’s newsletter. Thus we present Rosemary Sutcliff’s heart-breaking account of falling in – and out – of first love from her memoir Blue Remembered Hills.

… As a child Rosemary suffered from the juvenile arthritis known as Still’s Disease, which burned its way through her, leaving her permanently disabled, yet Blue Remembered Hills is the very opposite of a misery memoir. It is a record of the growing up and making of a writer, and it is full of humour, affection, joy in people and the natural world, and the kind of deep understanding that can come out of hard experiences. In some ways, hers was an enchanted childhood, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards, which would later feed into her books.

… After the war was over, in the summer before the great freeze of 1947, along came Rupert, the son of a recently arrived neighbour, invalided out of the RAF, glamorous with darkly flaming red hair and ‘blazingly-golden hazel eyes’, who spoke to her as an equal – ‘the first person to whom it ever occurred that I could be asked out without my parents’. They grew closer and closer, but then Rupert clearly took fright, and eventually had to tell her that he had fallen in love with someone else, breaking her heart.

Fortunately for us, however, Rosemary had just begun to discover writing and before long her first book for children, The Queen Elizabeth Story – ‘written out of heartache, but also out of something set free within myself ’ by that searing experience was accepted by the Oxford University Press.

Blue Remembered Hills

Once he took me to the pictures. It was Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller in I Know Where I’m Going. But mostly we just wandered round the country. We saw a kingfisher blue-flashing upriver on the tawny reed-rustling fringe of Fremington Marshes, read Hassan to each other at the top of Dark Ham woods. On the afternoon beyond all afternoons – it must have been fairly early summer, because the elder blossom was heavy and rank-sweet scented over the whole countryside – we came upon the mouth of a tiny lane turned almost into a tunnel by the hazel bushes arching over it. We were almost past before we saw it, and Rupert said, ‘Ha! The Golden Road to Samarkand!’ and swung the nose of the car round into it at the last instant. Mercifully there was nothing on our tail at the time. And we went on and on, the grassgrown lane leading us, and we following, dazzled by the dapple of sun through the nut leaves overhead, and came out at the gate of a little secret meadow sloping down to the Torridge. Elder-flowers drooped over the gateway; the riverbank was afroth with pink and white balsams; and Rupert found a tiny emerald frog in the grass, and caught it to show me, just for a moment, sitting on his thumb, then let it go again. We had thermos-flask tea, and talked, holding hands, and shared the water-sounds and the elder-scent of the little secret meadow; and nothing else happened, all the long sunshiny, shadow-dappled afternoon. But if it was given me to live over again one afternoon of my life, that would be the one that I should choose.

The odd thing is that neither of us thought of what was happening to us as Falling in Love. We thought that it was something different and special. Everybody in love thinks that their love is special, an experience which nobody else has had before. But we did not think of it as being in love at all, only as being two halves of the same thing. From the first we had a strong sense of relationship, though in the early days it might as well have been a sibling relationship as any other. In those days we both believed in reincarnation, as I rather think I still do, so we tried to rationalise the thing as a link formed in other lives. Perhaps we had been brothers, sisters, lovers, comrades in arms. ‘There is only one love,’ Rupert said, trying to work it out as he went along. ‘All the different kinds of love are just facets of it’…

… Rupert was getting married. Rupert sent me a book. It was only Joan Grant’s latest novel; he and I were both keen readers of her books at that time. That was the final straw. My father, still with a bleak unhappy face, said nothing. My mother did all the talking. Of course I must send the book back, I must, must, must break with Rupert completely. No use protesting, as I did protest, that Rupert and I were friends and one did not break with one’s friends because they got married. She understood too much of the truth to be bought off by that. In the end she cried and told me that she could not desert me, and so, because of her efforts to take my part, I was tearing a gulf between her and my father.

I sent back the book. I wrote to Rupert explaining the whole sorry situation. In a vacuum we might have managed some kind of threefold relationship. In a world full of other people, it could not be done. At least by me.

Then I had a reconciliation with my father. I sat on his knee like a little girl again, his arms round me; even wept a few difficult tears on his Harris tweed shoulder. It was so lovely not to have that silent barrier of ice between us any more. Such a relief to lay down my weapons, not that I had ever had many weapons – only my little wooden sword – and stop fighting. For the moment it almost outweighed all the rest.

Rupert wrote me a last parting letter, accepting my decision – only it was not a decision, just a capitulation to circumstances too strong for me – but insisting, ‘This isn’t the end, even this time round, it isn’t the end, for you and me.’ He was right, too, though except for one very glancing encounter, it was more than twenty years before I saw him again. ‘But that,’ as Kipling would have said, ‘is another story.’ …

… Because of what had happened between Rupert and me, I was a fuller and richer person than I would otherwise have been. I knew that if a pantomime fairy in a gauze ballet skirt had appeared, and offered, with one wave of her tinsel wand, to wipe out the last two years, and with them the grey ache of loss that they had left behind, I would not for one moment have considered accepting her offer. Because of those two years, something in me which, without them, would probably have remained green and unawakened, had had a chance to flower and fruit and ripen. Because of those two years I was going, in some odd way, to be able to write as I would not otherwise have been able to do.

© Rosemary Sutcliff 1983, 2008, 2012

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The Independent (London) —August 20, 1992—published some comments on their obituary of Rosemary Sutcliff, which noted that she had “a feeling for the mending side of life”.

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 rereading 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 (of the obituary), 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 cAD600. (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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Cover of Books for Keeps, March 2010

Brian Alderson founded the Children’s Books History Society; he was once Children’s Books Editor for The Times newspaper. Writing in Books for Keeps in 2010, he  recalled an anecdote once told to librarians by Rosemary Sutcliff in the 1950s: ‘That’s not a sand-castle,’ said the busy child on the beach, ‘I’m building a temple to Mithras.’

In all probability the temple-builder’s enthusiasm for the work came from hearing its famed serialisation on ‘Children’s Hour’ but (perhaps unlike television serials) the wireless version sent listeners straight back to the book to get the author’s full-dress narrative to go with the spoken one.

They were keen readers, those librarians – our first critics, long before the academic brigades were mustered – and for them, at that time, the landing of The Eagle of the Ninth had something of the force of a revelation. True, it did not come from an entirely unknown author. (more…)

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When Rosemary Sutcliff contracted Still’s Disease —severe juvenile arthritis, which left her mobility severely affected all her life—in the 1920s, the terms  ‘disability’ & ‘handicap’ were used equally. Now 90% of the use is  ‘disability’.

Relative use of terms disability and handicap

 

When she was first ill, she was most likey to be said to be handicapped. By the time of her death she was more likely to be said to be disabled; and were she alive now, increasingly she would be said to have a disability.

Comparing being disabled, crippled and handicapped

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Rosemary Sutcliff, historical novelist

Rosemary Sutcliff , internationally-acclaimed writer of historical fiction, children’s literature and books for children, wrote for an exhibition for The International Year of Disabled People in 1981 (at  The Roundhouse, London, UK) about being disabled, and living with physical disabilities.

Career-wise, I’m one of the lucky ones. My job, as a writer of books, is one of the few in which physical disability presents hardly any problems. I would claim that it presents no problems at all but my kind of book needs research, and research is more difficult for a disabled person. (more…)

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Rosemary Sutcliff was very ill as a child with juvenile arthritis. She spent much of her time when very young in hospital or a spinal carriage ‘rather like a coffin’, only went to school aged nine, and was disabled from the disease all her life.

A spinal carriage was rather like a coffin; it was very uncomfortable, and you lay flat out in this thing, and of course all you could see were the branches of the trees or the roofs of the houses going by overhead. And it was extremely boring. With any luck you were perhaps allowed to sit up on the way home from a walk.

Spinal carriage similar to Rosemary Sutcliff's

I didn’t go to school for a very long time …My mother used to educate me herself, chiefly by just reading to me the books that she liked. But I did go to school, and I’ve always been very thankful that I went to an ordinary school, I never got incarcerated with other disabled children.

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Portrait of Rosemary Sutcliff by Mark Gerson

I have just discovered, courtesy of Bing search and never found on Google,  two portraits of Rosemary Sutcliff which I had not seen for many a year. They are  at The National Portrait Gallery. I have applied for full size reproduction rights. Meanwhile two thumbnails must suffice. The one below is by Lord Snowden, for the Sunday Times who I think had compiled a list of top twenty authors of the 20th Century

Rosemary Sutcliff in a poprtrait at The National Portrait Gallery

The others in the photo are:

  • Dame Beryl Bainbridge (1932-2010), Novelist and actress.
  • Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), Poet Laureate, writer and broadcaster.
  • Sir Malcolm Stanley Bradbury (1932-2000), Novelist and critic.
  • Anthony Burgess (John Burgess Wilson) (1917-1993), Novelist and critic; composer.
  • Leon Garfield (1921-1996), Writer.
  • Laurence Edward Alan (‘Laurie’) Lee (1914-1997), Poet and prose writer.
  • Rosamond Nina Lehmann (1901-1990), Novelist.
  • Sir Victor Sawdon (‘V.S.’) Pritchett (1900-1997), Writer and critic.
  • Sir Laurens Jans van der Post (1906-1996), Writer, farmer, explorer and conservationist.

Source: National Portrait Gallery

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