Rosemary Sutcliff is most famed for The Eagle of the Ninth, but there was much more to her than that. In the 1950s, historically-minded children found her books a magic carpet into the past. I began with Brother Dusty-feet (1952) and The Armourer’s House (1951), and never looked back and an insatiable interest in history has remained the backbone of my life.
In 1954, The Eagle of the Ninth introduced Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young Roman who chooses to stay in Britain after the legions leave. Seven subsequent books follow his family’s fate, usually directly. The odd book out is the fifth, Sword at Sunset, now published in a new edition to celebrate its 50th birthday. In 1963, it was firmly announced to be for adults, and given the (for their time) graphic and violent scenes of sex and slaughter, it deserved to be.
Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’
Endeavour Press have now republished in E form Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction novel The Flowers of Adonis, about Alkibiades, who The Times in an interview to mark its publication in 1969 called “one of the most enigmatic figures in Greek History. It is a novel of the Peloponnesian War, and Alkibiades’s relationship with Athens, and the dreadful battle at Syracuse.
- Source: The Times, October 27, 1969, p6
Reader-follower-commenter Anne alerted me a couple of years ago to Rosemary Sutcliff’s comments on ‘gadzookery’ and ‘writing forsoothly’.
Victorian writers, and even those of a somewhat later date…saw nothing ludicrous in ‘Alas! fair youth, it grieves me to see thee in this plight. Would that I had the power to strike these fetters from thy tender limbs.’ Josephine Tey, whose death I shall never cease to lament, called this ‘Writing forsoothly.’ A slightly different variant is known in the trade as ‘gadzookery.’ Nowadays this is out of fashion; and some writers go to the other extreme and make the people of Classical Greece or Mediaeval England speak modern colloquial English. This is perhaps nearer to the truth of the spirit, since the people in question would have spoken the modern colloquial tongue of their place and time.
But, personally, I find it destroys the atmosphere when a young Norman Knight says to his Squire, ‘Shut up, Dickie, you’re getting too big for your boots.’ Myself, I try for a middle course, avoiding both gadzookery and modern colloquialism; a frankly ‘made-up’ form that has the right sound to it, as Kipling did also. I try to catch the rhythm of a tongue, the tune that it plays on the ear, Welsh or Gaelic as opposed to Anglo-Saxon, the sensible workmanlike language which one feels the Latin of the ordinary Roman citizen would have translated into. It is extraordinary what can be done by the changing or transposing of a single word, or using perfectly usual one in a slightly unusual way: ‘I beg your pardon’ changed into ‘I ask your pardon.’
- Source: Rosemary Sutcliff, History is People (1971), published in Virginia Haviland’s “Children and Literature: Views and Reviews”.
Rosemary Sutcliff died at the end of July 22 years ago. The Guardian obituary by Elaine Moss was entitled ‘Chronicler of Occupied Brittania’:
Let us not be solemn about the death of Rosemary Sutcliff CBE, who has died suddenly, aged 72, despite the progressively wasting Still’s disease that had been with her since the age of two. She was impish, almost irreverent sometimes, in her approach to life. Her favourite author was Kipling and she once told me she had a great affection for The Elephant’s Child – because his first action with his newly acquired trunk was to spank his insufferably interfering relations.
But it was Kipling’s deep communion with the Sussex countryside and its history that was her true inspiration. Settled as an adult in Arundel, Rosemary shared with him his love for his county as well as his vision of successive generations living in and leaving their mark upon the landscape.
Rosemary Sutcliff, at the peak of her form in her “Roman” novels, was without doubt an historical writer of genius, and recognised internationally as such. Though most of her books were published for children, many—particularly The Mark Of The Horse Lord (1965)—have about them the full stature and uncompromising treatment that make them valued additions to the bookshelves of historians.
Though she wrote more than 50 novels, set in times as far apart as the Bronze Age and the 18th century, her favoured period was the Roman occupation of Britain and the survival through it (survival is her theme song) of the native tribes. She writes hauntingly of the life of the Legions, the collapse of the Roman Empire and the carrying of the lantern of civilisation by the descendants of the early legionnaries into the Dark Ages. And it was in the Dark Ages that the Arthurian legends, her second love (surely not unrelated to the first?), were born. To the Arthurian legends which she retells in The Sword And The Circle (among other titles) for children and The Sword At Sunset (1963), an adult novel, she brings her own extraordinary narrative gifts and a touch of personal magic.
To the best-loved Roman stories—The Eagle Of The Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers (winner of the Carnegie Medal)—she brings life, glowing and immediate, the result of painstaking research that fired an imagination of extraordinary richness. Song For A Dark Queen (1978) celebrated one of her rare heroines —Boudicca—and she was at once pleased and amused by its outcome, ‘The Other Award’, which is normally conferred upon more self-consciously anti-sexist authors.
Many of Sutcliff’s admirers are struck by the luminous details in her work that conjure up a palpable vision of a Northumbrian wood, a sleeping wolfhound, a young Roman soldier in the noise and mud and confusion of battle. They may not know that at the age of 14 Rosemary Sutcliff left school (“I was hopeless at everything—English, History, Nature Study, Latin —all the things that interest me now”) to study art. But few of those admirers will be surprised to discover that afterwards she became a miniaturist of distinction.
In Blue Remembered Hills (1982), a painful and moving account of her early life, she describes her six-year-old self sitting with her legs stuck straight out in front of her, investigating and experiencing “to my heart’s content the foot or two of world going on around me … The turf was not just grass, but a densely interwoven forest of thyme and scarlet pimpernel, creamy honey-scented clover and cinquefoil and the infinitely small and perfect eyebright with the spot of celestial yellow at its heart.” Here is the eye of the young artist feeding the pen of the future writer.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s own pen had to be “fattened” and cushioned so that her arthritic hand could guide it—yet in her heyday she wrote 1,800 words a day in her elfin script on a single folio sheet and she made no fewer than three hand-written drafts of every novel before she was satisfied. She had just finished the second one in the evening before she died and there are two novels awaiting publication.
She was a professional and a perfectionist in her every endeavour and like so many of her heroes, she rose above apparently insuperable drawbacks.
- Source: The Guardian (London) July 27, 1992, p. 39—Obituary ‘Chronicler of Occupied Brittania’ by Elaine Moss
Extract from Oxford Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature on Rosemary Sutcliff.
Critics of Sutcliff’s work sometimes comment on its difficulty both in terms of the language she employs and in terms of the historical depth her novels embrace. But for Sutcliff herself, these sorts of evaluations of her writing were welcomed as compliments. She prided herself on never writing down to her readers, expecting them instead to be enticed into enjoying a compelling and demanding tale by the pageantry of history and the warm humanity of people in every era.
She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’ Sutcliff also researched her novels with exquisite care, and they reflect her vast knowledge of military tactics, religious practices, landscapes, and the material conditions and artifacts of everyday life whether in a Bronze Age village or in a Roman legion on the move.
Other commentators have noted the limited role that female characters play in her novels. Except for a few volumes that focus on a young woman, like Song for a Dark Queen (1978), which tells the tale of Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni who led a revolt against the Romans in a.d. 60, this is certainly true. Sutcliff often includes energetic and courageous women among her secondary characters, but providing insights into women’s roles in history is not among her greatest strengths.
There is a detailed entry on “children’s literature” in the Brittanica Library (Ex Encyclopedia Brittanica?). Of UK children’s literature it claims:
The English have often confessed a certain reluctance to say good-bye to childhood. This curious national trait, baffling to their continental neighbours, may lie at the root of their supremacy in children’s literature. Yet it remains a mystery. But, if it cannot be accounted for, it can be summed up.
It also argues that:
In two fields … English post-war children’s literature set new records. These were the historical novel and that cloudy area comprising fantasy, freshly wrought myth, and indeed any fiction not rooted in the here and now.
Of Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction:
There was fair reason to consider Rosemary Sutcliff not only the finest writer of historical fiction for children but quite unconditionally among the best historical novelists using English. A sound scholar and beautiful stylist, she made few concessions to the presumably simple child’s mind and enlarged junior historical fiction with a long series of powerful novels about England’s remote past, especially that dim period stretching from pre-Roman times to the coming of Christianity. Among her best works are The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Shield Ring (1956), The Silver Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959), and especially Warrior Scarlet (1958).
Historical novelist and children’s writer Rosemary Sutcliff had a major obituary in The Independent newspaper in 1992
Posted in Autobiography & Biography, Criticism, Reviews, Research, Awards, tagged 1920, 1992, children's books, children's literature, historical fiction, obituary, Rosemary Sutcliff on June 13, 2014 | Leave a Comment »
Historical novelist and children’s writer Rosemary Sutcliff‘s obituary in The Independent newspaper.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels opened the eyes of a generation of children to the past. They also set a new standard for children’s historical fiction because of their insight, passion and commitment.
Sutcliff was a demanding writer who expected a lot from her readers which is why her books are also wholly satisfying for adults. She evokes time and place with an incredibly sure touch and – once she had found her true voice with The Eagle of the Ninth in 1954 – a sharp ear for the dialogue of the past. (more…)