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When the BBC adapted and broadcast Rosemary Sutcliff‘s historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth in 1977, the BBC Radio Times wrote about her approach to children, writing, the Romans and her hero Marcus—’part of me was in love with him’.

Her passion for the Romans stemmed from her childhood. Her mother read aloud to her from books like Rudyard Kipling‘s Puck Of Pook’s Hill.  His three Roman tales entranced her.

I didn’t read myself till the last possible minute, about nine. I was brought up on Arthur Weigall’s Wanderings In Roman Britain and Wanderings In Anglo-Saxon Britain. He mentions this eagle dug up at Silchester and I’ve been fascinated by it since I was five.

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For reasons I cannot divine, my Google alert for new items on <Rosmeary Sutcliff> pointed today to a 2011posting at this blog about  her appearance on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs! At that time, a recording of Rosemary Sutcliff’s appearance with Roy Plomley was not available for downloading. It is now, here.

In the usual way on this radio programme, Rosemary Sutcliff talked (in October 1983) about her life and work and chose eight records to take to the mythical BBC Radio desert island. She said she chose her music just because she loved it—not everyone does, especially these PR-obsessed days. Her choices were:

  1. Record 1: Dvorak’s New World Symphony, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, by Istvan Kertesz.
  2. Record 2: “Eternal father strong to save” – Hymn.
  3. Record 3: L’Apres-midi d’une Faune by Debussy. Royal Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Beecham.
  4. Record 4: “We’ll Gather Lilacs” sung by Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth.
  5. Record 5: “The Flowers of the Forest” played by the pipes & drums of the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards.
  6. Record 6: Excerpt from “Under Milk Wood”. Polly Garter’s song.
  7. Record 7: “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams. The Boyd Kneale Orchestra. With Frederick Grinker.
  8. Record 8: “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach. Choir of King’s college, Cambridge, conducted by David Willcocks.
  • If she could only take One Record: The Lark Ascending
  • One Luxury for the island: Roy Plomley refused her request to take her beloved dogs. She chose therefore flowers, “delivered daily by bottle”.
  • One Book for the island: “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling.

Read more about Desert Island Discs, and stream the episode, here

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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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Books for Keeps Issue  64 (1990) Cover

Margaret Meek, an academic at The Institute of Education in London, wrote a monograph about Rosemary Sutcliff, and later, a tribute to her on her 70th birthday in Books for Keeps, in 1990.

Theres a revealing paragraph in the collection of stories which (Rosemary Sutcliff) edited with Monica Dickens, Is Anyone There?, where she says: `I had a lonely childhood and growing-up time. My parents loved me and I loved them, but I could never talk to them about the problems and fears and aching hopes inside me that I had most need to talk about to someone. And there was no one else.’

Writers cannot be convivial people in work time; their chosen craft is a solitary one. But to be cut off in childhood from the society of the school playground, where the gossipy tales are told, is a particular deprivation. Rosemary Sutcliff could never have been a chatty novelist. Yet her experience of being read to throughout her childhood by a sympathetic adult (her mother) bears out everything that has been researched or said about reading stories to children. If you want to understand where Rosemary Sutcliff, as a novelist, `comes from’, read The Jungle Books, Kim and The Just So Stories, preferably aloud.

… To read Rosemary Sutcliff is to discover what reading is good for. So this anniversary and this accomplishment make me ask what might be the contemporary appeal or, more simply, the enduring attraction of the historical novels for the young. After all, much has clearly changed in children’s books and reading since television became their more immediate storyteller, and novelists, now more matey and informal, adopted a more elliptical vernacular prose, in which the readers’ ease is more visible than the challenge to read … (Her) first page swings the characters into action in a situation as clear as a television image. The names of the people and places set the rules of belonging; the relations between the sexes are formally arrayed; the battles are long and fierce. Readers who are unaccustomed to the building up of suspense in poised sentences may need a helping hand …  the best way into a Sutcliff narrative, a kind of initiation, is to hear it read aloud. Then you know what the author means when she says she tells her tales `from the inside’.

Source: Books For Keeps, Issue 64.

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Sadly stuck behind their pay-wall are The Times Archives. In January 1983, within a long interview by Caroline Moorehead, Rosemary Sutcliff said of actually visiting battle sites:

“Modem times are a hindrance. The natural features of the land have been lost.”

Mind you, such research trips would anyway always have been a major project for her, given her severe physical disabilities. Some other quotes from Rosemary Sutcliff from the article are:

On writing her memoirs Blue Remembered Hills:

l happened to have a winter free. I was in between books. And being an only child, with far older cousins, who else is there to remember? And it was a happy childhood.

On periods of history she avoided:

I can’t get inside the medieval skin. I find the complete permeation of religious life too much for a free-thinker like myself, and beyond the eighteenth century is too cloak and dagger for my taste.

On when she wrote:

I hit that sudden post-war flowering of children’s literature and the golden age of –  the Oxford University Press.

On her rocking horse, Troubador:

About 15 years ago I decided that I was old enough, ugly enough, and successful enough, to indulge my eccentricities.

One of Rosemary Sutcliff's eccentricities | Her rocking horse Troubador

One of Rosemary Sutcliff’s eccentricities was supporting a rocking-horse maker (who went bust!)

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A few days ago, over at the blog Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness (?!), these quotations in particular from  ‘10 Great Quotations from Writers about Writing’  appealed to me:

Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper and quite often the blank piece of paper wins. (Neil Gaiman)

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. (Thomas Mann)

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. (Cyril Connolly)

I think the hardest thing about writing is writing. (Nora Ephron)

I recall again here that, amongst many interesting comments about writing, Rosemary Sutcliff once said: “The only thing more frightful than writing is not writing”.

More quotes on this blog here

 

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I do wish the film The Eagle (2011) had been more successful with audiences, although it did recoup its costs for the film companies). The title Eagle (no ‘of the Ninth’) and the changed ending grated with Sutcliff fans, although I found it a compelling film-story if not exactly Rosemary Sutcliff’s story.

I was recently reminded by a collection of quotes at the Goodreads community of something Rosemary Sutcliff once said:

I do not think that you can be changing the end of a song or a story like that, as though it were quite separate from the rest. I think the end of a story is part of it from the beginning.

Other quotes they have collated include:   (more…)

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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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A Circlet of Oak Leaves:  cover of book by Rosemary SutcliffA self-described “bookseller, reader, science fiction; fantasy writer, photographer, and gluten-free cook”, who signs her “name E. M. Epps”, gave a “thumbs up” for A Circlet of Oak Leaves by Rosemary Sutcliff at her blog “This space intentionally left blank”. She wrote”

A little novella taking place in Roman Britain. A slight book, but beautifully written as I would expect from Sutcliff.

“So he took them on, through a vicious squall of slingstones. Where the ground grew too steep to ride they dropped from the horses and ran on, crouching with heads down behind their light bronze-rimmed bucklers. By the time they reached the spur, hearts and lungs bursting within them, he had no idea how many or how few were still behind him; he had no chance to look round. He did not even know that many of the horses, lightened of their riders ‘ weight, had come scrambling after them, bringing their own weapons, the stallions’ weapons of teeth and trampling hooves, into the fight. He only knew that the time came when there were no more Painted Men left alive on the spur, and that the terrible boulder [perched above them], swaying as it seemed to every breath, was still there.”

Source: This Space Intentionally Left Blank – writer E. M. Epps’s blog.

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Press cuttings about Historical novel Sword at Sunset by Rosemary SutcliffQuotes to ponder from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Arthurian novel Sword at Sunset in the eyes of a recent reader:

“The taste of vomit was in my very soul, and a shadow lay between me and the sun”

“To go into battle drunk is a glory worth experiencing, but it does not make for clear and detailed memory”

“In war and in the wilderness one easily loses count of time”

“A wonderful thing is habit”

And the author of the blog, a lunatic reader with self-ascribed ‘book lust’,  especially liked :

“Silence took us by the throat”

from:  ~*LunaSea*~ | a life reading words.

More about Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff on this blog

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