Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

Acclaimed internationally for her historical novels and books for children, Rosemary Sutcliff (b. 1920; d. 1992) was the subject of many magazine profiles. Sadly she is no longer here to create pieces like the ‘This much I know’ feature in magazine of The Observer newspaper. But this much she did know, as revealed in her answers  late in her life to Roy Plomley’s questions on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs. Photos of Rosemary Sutcliff, historical novelist and children’s writer

A spinal carriage is like a coffin. It is very uncomfortable. You lie flat out in this ‘thing’, and all you can see the are branches of the trees or the roofs of the houses going by overhead.  It is extremely boring.

I didn’t learn to read for myself until I was very old — I was nine before I could read. I think this was because my mother read aloud to me so much. Chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day.

I think it honestly never occurred to my parents that a child growing up and going through her teens required other young people. I was never allowed to bring friends home. They were very understanding; nobody could have had nicer parents. But they were very sufficient unto themselves.

Miniature painting is cramping. I was a good craftswoman—but I always had this feeling of having my elbows tucked too close to my sides when I was doing it. I gave it up to write. And I could write as big as ever I wanted to, I could use an enormous canvas if I wanted to.

I feel most at home in Roman Britain. I always feel it’s perhaps a little shameful to be quite so at home with the Romans, because they really were a very bourgeois lot, but I do feel very at home with them; I feel, ‘Here I am back at home again’ when I get back into a Roman story.

I think I do believe in reincarnation. I hope I do, because I think it’s the one thing that makes sense, that makes for justice and a really sensible pattern to life.

I can only create from the top of my head, down my right arm, and out of the point of my pen. So, I write in longhand.

I start with an idea; never a plot. I’m not very strong on plots, but I start from a theme, which grows from the idea. I do have a certain amount of framework: I’ve got to know how I’m going to get from the beginning to the end, and a few ports of call on the way.

I do not write to a standard length. I do not know how long a book’s going to be. I find that a book takes its own time and gets to its own proper ending place.

I take great pains that details should be right. I am quite shameless about writing to people—people who know about breeding horses, or whatever it is—and asking a particular question. People are usually very kind about sharing their own expertise. I do rely very much also on the feeling ‘does this smell right’, ‘does it have the right feel to it?’.

I don’t think I’m a particularly masculine kind of woman—although most of my books are told from a male point of view. I can’t write about girls from the inside. I don’t think the absence of sexual encounters is because I’m writing for children—I don’t honestly know why, it’s just happened that way.

I don’t know whose decision it was not to marry. The situation became impossible. My own family was so against it. People’s feelings were very different in those days to what they are now, about anybody with a disability being allowed to have any emotions. Neither of us were very grown up and we just couldn’t cope. So that was that.

Source:  BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs‘.

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Latest collection of reviews in three words of Rosemary Sutcliff’s internationally-acclaimed historical novel for ‘children aged 8 to 88’ (her phrase), The Eagle of the Ninth (her ‘best beloved book’), set in Roman Britain. Interesting that very few words have been used more than once. (I’ve excluded names and places):

Ancient History, Bleak, Classic, Courageous, Dramatic, Engrossing, Enthralling, Evocative, Friendship, Gripping, Haunting, Heart-stirring, Honour, I-love-it, I-was-there, Imagery, Imagined, Inspirational, Inspires, Life-affirming, Makes-history-live, Nostalgic, Optimistic, Real History, Really-rather-good, Reborn, Resigned, Resolute, Restored, Spine-tingling, Tact, Thrilling, Understanding, Uplifting, Valiant, Vivid

The Eagle of the Ninth 3 Word Reviews 1.1 at June 1st 2015

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My attention was drawn on Twitter to a review in just three words of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth:

Courageous. Resolute. Gripping.

This set me wondering how other readers and followers here, as well as on Twitter and Facebook, would review The Eagle of the Ninth in just three words.Twelve responses so far…more  in the comments below would be very welcome please!

12 Three Word Reviews of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth

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I am trying to collect here in the comments (and via Twitter @rsutcliff) people’s views about which is Rosemary Sutcliff’s best book, and why….

List of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books

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From the cover of Rosemary Sutcliff's autobiography The Blue Remembered Hills

Rosemary Sutcliff‘s 1954 children’s classic The Eagle of the Ninth (still in print more than 50 years on) is the first of a series of novels in which Sutcliff, who died in 1992, explored the cultural borderlands between the Roman and the British worlds – “a place where two worlds met without mingling” as she describes the British town to which Marcus, the novel’s central character, is posted.

Marcus is a typical Sutcliff hero, a dutiful Roman who is increasingly drawn to the British world of “other scents and sights and sounds; pale and changeful northern skies and the green plover calling”. This existential cultural conflict gets even stronger in later books like The Lantern Bearers and Dawn Wind, set after the fall of Rome, and has modern resonance. But Sutcliff was not just a one-trick writer.

The range of her novels spans from the Bronze Age and Norman England to the Napoleonic wars. Two of her best, The Rider of the White Horse and Simon, are set in the 17th century and are marked by Sutcliff’s unusually sympathetic (for English historical novelists of her era) treatment of Cromwell and the parliamentary cause. Sutcliff’s finest books find liberal-minded members of elites wrestling with uncomfortable epochal changes. From Marcus Aquila to Simon Carey, one senses, they might even have been Guardian readers.

Michael Rosen commented on this editorial:

Interesting that she was writing about the end of an empire at the end of…er…an empire. And does the search for the lost legion echo/refract 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.

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Rosemary Sutcliff spoke to a ‘Children’s Literature New England’ conference in 1989, in Cambridge (UK). Her contribution was entitled ‘History and Time’. At one point she told an anecdote to indicate that she saw her task as a historical novelist to be to breathe life into the bare bones of the accounts of academic historians and teachers.

Many years ago, when I was sure of myself as only someone scarcely out of their apprenticeship can be, I was talking to an audience of school teachers in the Midlands that are sodden and unkind, when a County Inspector of Education stood up and asked what was my justification for writing historical novels, which he clearly considered a bastard form, instead of leaving the job to legitimate historians who knew what they were talking about. I looked him straight in the eye and said: “Historians and teachers, you and your kind, can produce the bare bones, all in their right order, but still bare bones. I and my kind can breathe life into them. And history is not bare bones alone, but a living process.” Looking back I’m rather shaken at my hardihood, but I still think I was right.

  • Source: Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past by Fiona M. Collins, Judith Graham. Routledge (2013). p 112

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On November 4th, 1992, The Times newspaper recorded briefly the memorial service for “Miss Rosemary Sutcliff”.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage was represented by Mr Vaughan Rees at a memorial service for Miss Rosemary Sutcliff held yesterday (Nov 4th) at St James’s, Piccadilly.

The Rev Ulla Monberg officiated.

The Rev Peter Trafford and Mrs Sarah Palmer read the lessons, Ms Jill Black and Mr Anthony Lawton, godson and chairman, Sussex Dolphin, read from Miss Sutcliff’s works and Mr John Bell from the works of Kipling. Mr Murray Pollinger, principal, Murray Pollinger, and Mrs Penelope Lively gave addresses.

The Telegraph gave much more detail of who was there, and the readings.

A memorial service for Miss Rosemary Sutcliff was held yesterday at St James’s, Piccadilly. The Rev Ulla Monberg officiated, assisted by the Rev Peter Trafford.

Mrs Sarah Palmer read a lesson and Mrs Jill Black read from Miss Sutcliff’s “Sun Horse, Moon Horse”. Mr John Bell read from Rudyard Kipling’s “A Song to Mithras” and Mr Anthony Lawton (cousin and godson), Chairman of Sussex Dolphin, read from Miss Sutcliff’s autobiography “Blue Remembered Hills”, and from “Puffin Passport”. Addresses were given by Mr Murray Pollinger and Mrs Penelope Lively. “Blue Remembered Hills”, an Air for Rosemary Sutcliff, by Mr Steafan Hannigan, was played by him on the Irish Pipes.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage was represented by Mr Vaughan Rees. Among others present were:

Mrs Anthony Lawton, Rowan Lawton, Dominic Lawton, Miss Heather Lawton, Mr Michael Palmer, Mr John Sutcliff, Miss Rachel Sutcliff, Mr and Mrs Richard Wood, Mr Jonathan Wood, Mr James Wood, Mr Edward Sutcliff.

Viscountess Hanworth, Lady Reynolds, Mr Philip Attenborough, Hodder and Stoughton, Miss Margaret Clark, Bodley Head, Mrs Elizabeth Attenborough, Penguin Books, Mrs Jane Nissen, Hamish Hamilton, Mr Maurice Lyon, Puffin Books, Miss Julie Myerson and Miss Caroline Royds, Walker Books, Miss Catherine Toseland, Random House, Mrs Julia MacRae, Managing Director, Julia MacRae Books.

Miss Nina Bawden, representing the Royal Society of Literature, Mr Mark Le Fanu, General Secretary, Society of Authors, Mr John Paxton, representing the West Country Writers’ Association, Miss Paddy Moon, Association of Disabled Professionals, Mr J Eagle, the Ninth Legion.

Mrs Murray Pollinger, Mr Walter Hodges, Miss Shirley Felts, Miss Emma Chichester Clark, Mr Donald Fisher, Miss Gillian Avery, Mr David Davis, Miss Christine Long, Mr Christopher Fry, Mrs Robert Gittings, Mr and Mrs Brian Alderson, Miss Naomi Lewis, Mrs Anthony Burgess, Mrs Jill Paton Walsh, Mrs Elaine Moss, Miss Philippa Pearce, Miss Vivienne Menkes and Miss Frances Lincoln, together with other friends.

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