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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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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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Cover to Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth Original UK edition 1954Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth is rooted in  the history of a real Roman legion. A couple of years back I noted some references about the history from a website that has now disappeared – by one Ross Cowan. He had written that

… to learn more, especially about the evidence for the legion in the period c. AD 118-161, see :

Birley, A. R. The Roman Government of Britain. Oxford: 2005, 228-229.

Birley, E. B. ‘The Fate of the Ninth Legion’ in R. M. Butler (ed.) Soldier and Civilian in Roman Yorkshire. Leicester: 1971, 71-80.

Campbell, D. B. Roman Legionary Fortresses, 27 BC – AD 378. Oxford: 2006, 27-29.

Cowan, R. For the Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare. London: 2007, 220-234 and 271-273.  (more…)

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Since I am a writer, not an historian, I will sacrifice historical accuracy. I really very seldom have to do it, and then it is only a matter of perhaps reversing the order of two events, or something like that. But if it does come to the crunch, I will choose a good story over absolute historical accuracy.

Source: Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff  by Raymond H Thompson (here, on this blog)


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Alkibiades, the hero of Rosemary Sutcliff’s  novel The Flowers of Adonis, was one of the more enigmatic figures of Greek history. When this historical novel ‘for adults’ was published in 1969 by Hodder and Stoughton (costing 35 shillings in old money), Rosemary was inteviewed by The Times  newspaper (Oct 27, 1969).

I was trained at art school, but then the desire to scribble came over me. I got my interest in history from my mother who had a sort of minstrel’s, rather than historian’s knowledge. Inaccurate, but full of colourful legend. I disliked history at school ….

… They do say that to be a successful children’s writer one has to have a large lump of unlived childhood in one. I certainly think I have that.

You have to show children that good does overcome evil, but that does not necessarily mean that the old lady you helped then pays for your ballet lessons! The satisfaction should just be coming from the fact that you have done right.

… It is easier to give a book a historical setting, because children will take things happening then rather than right on their own doorsteps now.

Source: The Times, Oct 27, 1969, p6.

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Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins has been nominated for the short-list for the Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize. She has in the past written of her re-reading of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, ‘a childhood favourite‘. In the Guardian she has written briefly about her encounter with Roman Britain.

My academic training is as a classicist; but during my education, and for a long time afterwards, I wasn’t interested in Roman Britain – it struck me as a rather unglamorous, somewhat dreary outpost of the empire. Everything changed when, one spring, I went walking on Hadrian’s wall. I began to think about how the remnants of Roman Britain formed part of our mental and physical landscape. What had those who lived among these remains made of them? How had ideas about Britain’s Roman period shaped ideas about nationhood and empire?

The journey I took was a literal one: two summers were spent trundling around in a VW camper van in search of the physical remains of Roman Britain. I certainly revised my old, ignorant views of them when faced with such sites as the magnificent coastal military installation of Burgh Castle in Norfolk, or Hardknott in Cumbria, a spectacular fort perched on a steep mountain pass. I spent many months in libraries and archives; it was a particular pleasure seeking out antiquarian accounts of Roman Britain, from William Camden in the 16th century to writings by the learned and eccentric scholars of the 18th century.

I also became intrigued by the notion of Roman Britain as a generative place for art and ideas. Figures such as WH Auden, Wilfred Owen, Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten had been inspired by Roman Britain, not to mention authors such as Rosemary Sutcliff, but it had also sparked apparently humbler encounters: the Bristol builder who recreated a Romano-British mosaic in 1.6m tesserae; the amateur scholar who cracked an academic conundrum while running his children’s bath; the Newcastle seller of kitchens who became a full-time centurion, working in the modern heritage industry.

Under Another Sky is a book about the encounter with Roman Britain: my own, and that of others who came before me. I found Roman Britain to be an elusive, slippery place and time, offering up more anxieties and doubts than certainties. Above all writing the book was, for me, a way of trying to understand our present, by looking it at it through the lens of long ago.

via Samuel Johnson non-fiction shortlist: From the Romans to Thatcher | Books | The Guardian.

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