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….
Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’
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.
- Source: In praise of… Rosemary Sutcliff | Editorial in The Guardian.
- Michael Rosen’s comment
- More on this blog about people inspired and influenced by Rosemary Sutcliff
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
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.
In 2010 Joanna R. Smith blogged about reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dawn Wind—“gorgeous historical fiction” about Britain in the 6th Century AD. She loved (Rosemary Sutcliff’s): “storytelling and characters, and her talent of letting you hear and see and feel the things in her books. Her prose is quiet and lyrical and compelling, and this is “ Lovely, lovely stuff. The kind of writing I aspire to!”
The moon drifted clear of a long bank of cloud, and the cool slippery light hung for a moment on the crest of the high ground, and then spilled down the gentle bush-grown slope to the river. Between the darkness under the banks the water which had been leaden gray woke into moving ripple-patterns, and a crinkled skin of silver light marked where the paved ford carried across the road from Corinium to Aquae Sulis. Somewhere among the matted islands of rushes and water crowfoot, a moorhen cucked and was still. On the high ground in the loop of the river nothing moved at all, save the little wind that ran shivering through the hawthorn bushes.
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.
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