Today’s diary entry by author Rosemary Sutcliff refers to her mother. Coincidentally, I have today come across a copy of the original document which records the indenture as an apprentice apothecary of Rosemary Sutcliff’s grandfather (and my great grand-father), Dr Herbert Alfred Lawton (born 1851, died 1903).
Posts Tagged ‘history’
This article about how historians’ perceptions of the ‘legendary figure’ have changed over recent times is behind a pay wall: I am trying to access it. Meanwhile…
Forty years ago both scholarly histories and historical novels had a common view of Arthur: as a historical warrior, whose leadership enabled his people, the native inhabitants of post-Roman Britain, to halt the advancing tide of Anglo-Saxon conquest for about half a century. Nobody was exactly sure when this was, because it had been in the obscure period between 410 and 550, which has left almost no contemporary documents. Nonetheless, there was general agreement that Arthur had flourished somewhere in that time and had been the greatest British personality in it, establishing a fame which laid the basis for the later, more romantic and fantastic, medieval Arthurian legend.
This happy consensus had mostly been produced by the new discipline of archaeology, which had excavated some of the main sites associated with Arthur in that later and fully-developed legend, such as his birthplace at Tintagel and Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which local tradition held had been his court of Camelot. In each case, amid great publicity, spectacular remains had been found of occupation by wealthy people at just the right period. For many, this was enough to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the legend was rooted in historical truth and books such as Geoffrey Ashe’s The Quest for Arthur’s Britain and Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain carried this message to a wide readership. It was taken up by historians, who now felt encouraged to reconstruct a story for the years around 500 by combining the meagre early medieval sources with a wealth of much more dubious data from later periods; this approach was epitomised by John Morris’s fat, exciting book, The Age of Arthur . The interest stirred up by scholars resulted in a flood of historical fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. Most was produced by Englishmen, though Englishwomen such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart were among the most prominent authors. All treated Arthur as a historical character in a post-Roman setting, with realistic British landscapes and careful use of historical and archaeological data.
The Lantern Bearers by historical novelist and children’s writer Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1959, won the prestigious Carnegie Medal that year. An American reviewer wrote some twenty years later …
I discovered Rosemary Sutcliff in my early teens, and she quickly became one of my favorite authors. I can still vividly recapture the magic of reading her books. It was a real pleasure to return to The Lantern Bearers, which I first read when I was about thirteen, and find the magic still intact. … The Lantern Bearers is a wonderful book. Sutcliff possesses a unique gift for character and description, evoking a sense of place and person so intense that the reader can almost see her characters and the world in which they move. She has a matchless ability to establish historical context without a surfeit of the “let’s learn a history lesson now” exposition that mars many historical novels for young people. Her books are never less than meticulously researched, but her recreation of the past is so effortless that one has no sense of academic exercise, but rather of a world as close and immediate as everyday.
… The Arthurian theme was one of Sutcliff’s favorites: she produced several young adult books on the subject, as well as a beautiful adult novel, Sword at Sunset, to my mind one of the best ever written in this genre. But the Sutcliff’s Arthur is rooted as much in history as in myth–not just the tragic king of Le Morte d’Arthur or the heroic/magical figure of traditional Arthurian fantasy, but a man who might actually have existed, heir both to the memory of Rome and to the last great flowering of Celtic power in Britain.
… her enduring popularity … is richly merited: she is, quite simply, one of the best.
Copyright © 1997 Victoria Strauss
(First posted, April 29th, 2009)
“Teaching history without the facts? That’s just sociology” argues Brian Viner today. The great historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff certainly thought that dates and facts mattered, although she wrote fiction. Thus for example the dates and periods of her Roman Novels:
The Eagle of the Ninth – 129 AD
The Silver Branch – 284 AD
Frontier Wolf – 343 AD
The Lantern Bearers – 410+ AD
Sword At Sunset – 5th century
Dawn Wind – mid-late 6th century
Sword Song – early 10th century
The Shield Ring – 11th century
And the dates of publication matter, for those who would explore Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing more critically, thus: The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Shield Ring (1956), The Silver Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959), Dawn Wind (1961), Sword At Sunset (1963), Frontier Wolf (1980).
Frustrated to learn that his 16-year-old son, a student of History A-Level, ”… knew neither the year, nor even the century, in which the Spanish Armada set sail”, Brian Viner is provoking and amusing at The Guardian comment-is-free pages about “chronological teaching of history”. He is for some dates, despite recalling that 1066 And All That, was subtitled A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates. (more…)
Imogen Russell Williams wrote last year that “for me the nonpareil of children’s historical fiction remains Rosemary Sutcliff”:
Historical fiction for adults ranges in stature from the Booker-winning to the bodice-ripping – scholarly rambles or gleeful romps through a past animated, elucidated, or (at worst) knocked together into an unconvincing stage set by the writer’s imagination. The label carries its own baggage, however; like “crime”, or “fantasy”, sticking “historical” before “fiction” might, for some snobbish and deluded readers, require an “only” to complete the description.
It’s my feeling that historical fiction for children suffers less from the snootiness sometimes attracted by grown-up writing in the genre, perhaps because the educational cachet outweighs the sense that a “made-up” book is less worthwhile than a collection of primary sources. Certainly the best historical fiction of my childhood has remained with me, (more…)
Historical and children’s fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a book for adults (as opposed to children) about King Arthur – Sword at Sunset – a best seller in the UK in 1963. She said twenty years later:
I had determined from the time that I was very young that there was a real person there, and that I would love to find and reconstruct that person. [...] Most of the actual research I did for the book (Sword at Sunset), apart from knowing the Arthurian story from the romance versions, was into Dark Age life and history as far as they were known. Then I worked into this setting the Arthur who seemed to me to carry weight, to be the most likely kind of person. It was very strange because I have never written a book which was so possessive. It was extraordinary–almost frightening. [...] I would take the book to bed with me at night, and work there until I dropped off to sleep about two o’clock in the morning, too tired to see any more. Then I would wake up about six o’clock, still thinking about it. It was addictive. It was almost like having the story fed through to me, at times. I do my writing usually in three drafts, and I would go from the first to the second draft, from the second to the third, and find bits of the book that I had no recollection of having written at all.
I found that a US School – St Sebastian’s in Needham, MA – was encouraging summer reading of Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth. I was delighted of course, but wondered if the questions would encourage an emotional and reflective, as well as descriptive, reaction to the novel. Am I being churlish?
History 8 – Summer Reading Guide
The Eagle of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff Where does this historical novel take place?
What are the modern day countries that the story takes place in?
In your atlas find each of the places mentioned in the List of Place-Names at the back of the book.
How does these locations relate to the Roman Empire?
Who are the characters in this novel?
How do they fit in to the Roman Empire?
What are some differences between the Roman occupiers and the native residents of the north and the south?
If you have seen the movie, what differences are there from the book?
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff was in Lindsey Davis’s top ten Roman books in The Guardian in February 2009. Davis has written the Falco Roman detective novels.
“Somewhere about the year 117AD, the Ninth Legion, which was stationed at Eboracum, where York now stands, marched north to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes, and was never heard of again.” Hooked? If not, there’s no hope for you. A wonderful novel, for children of all ages.
The full list of books was:
- Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jérôme Carcopino
- Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Lesley Adkins and Roy A Adkins
- Rome and Her Empire by Barry Cunliffe
- Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Amanda Claridge
- The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
- Ancient Inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe
- The Lost World of Pompeii by Colin Amery and Brian Curran Jr
- Roman Britain by Keith Branigan.
- The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
- I, Claudius by Robert Graves
- Source: Lindsey Davis’s top 10 Roman books | guardian.co.uk.
- More on The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff on this blog
Rosemary Sutcliff‘s The Eagle of the Ninth is grounded in a view about what happened to the ninth Roman legion. The fate of the legion continues to be debated, most recently on the BBC website, by Miles Russell of Bournemouth University.
The British problem was of deep concern to Roman central government. Thanks to a tombstone recovered from Ferentinum in Italy, we know that emergency reinforcements of over 3,000 men were rushed to the island on “the British Expedition”, early in Hadrian’s reign. The emperor himself visited the island in AD 122, in order to “correct many faults”, bringing with him a new legion, the Sixth.
The fact that they took up residence in the legionary fortress of York suggests that the “great losses” of personnel, alluded to by Fronto, had occurred within the ranks of the Ninth.
Archaeological evidence of the legion’s fate is scarce
It would seem that Sutcliff was right after all.
It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of the uprising, ending their days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd Century Britain.
See also on this blog a post on The symbolism of The Eagle of the Ninth | What happened to the ninth legion: Part IX?
Rosemary Sutcliff‘s imagined fate of the ninth legion, as told in her historical novel for young adults The Eagle of the Ninth, which is the basis for the new film The Eagle, is about to receive support from a new documentary by UK producer-director Phil Hirst. According to the UK Daily Mail:
For centuries, historians have puzzled over the disappearance of a legion of 5,000 battle-hardened Roman soldiers in northern Britain around 108 AD.The ancient riddle, which has captivated storytellers, has just been dramatised by Hollywood in The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. Now, experts have revealed that the children’s book on which the film is based is more fact than fiction …
The dramatic new evidence hinges on a single gravestone tribute and was brought to light by historian and film-maker Phil Hirst, whose documentary Rome’s Lost Legion will be screened next month.
I know this is going to be controversial, not least from various conversations and comments on this blog! But it is good publicity for Phil Hirst’s documentary, the film The Eagle, and let us hope also, the book The Eagle of the Ninth. (The documentary Rome’s Lost Legion is on the History Channel on March 18. The Eagle opens in UK cinemas on March 25. The book has been available since 1954 …)