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Frank Cottrell Boyce, author of Millions

Like Rosemary Sutcliff, Frank Cottrell Boyce was awarded the Carnegie medal—for his children’s book, Millions. Like Rosemary, he believes passionately in reading for the sake of reading. I suspect also that, like Rosemary, he is passionate about being read to.

An article in the Guardian newspaper on Friday last quotes him from a lecture in which he argues that children are too often asked to analyse the text of a book or respond to a story with their own story, thus “polluting the whole reading experience”.

I visit many schools. I see amazing, creative work being done – especially in primary schools. But I have a nagging fear that in encouraging literacy we are killing the pleasure of reading…

There’s a humbling, Homeric magic in the sight of a crowd of children sitting down waiting to listen to your story…

Time and time again I come across teachers reading a story and then asking immediately for some kind of feedback. A piece of ‘creative writing’ ‘inspired by’ the story. Some opinions about character and wow words. Something to show the parents or the school inspectors. It pollutes the reading experience by bringing something transactional in to play. It destroys pleasure.

Pleasure in reading is deeply important. Pleasure is a profound and potent form of attention, a kind of slow thinking.When I offer you a story I don’t want you to come back to me with a description of how I did it. I don’t think of my reader as a trainee writer. I’m hoping that it stays in your mind and comes out in different ways I could never have predicted – as an engineering idea, as a cake, as a hug that you give your dad.

We think of reading as a solitary activity but some of my most important reading experiences were very much shared.

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Rosemary Sutcliff spent a limited time in formal school education, but it did not hinder her  in becoming what The Guardian newspaper called on her death ‘a writer of genius’.

I didn’t go to school for a very long time because of traipsing around so much. My mother used to educate me herself, chiefly by just reading to me the books that she liked. (But I did go to school, and I’ve always been very thankful that I went to an ordinary school, I never got incarcerated with other disabled children).

(But) chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day. I didn’t learn to read for myself until I was very old. Me and Kipling, we were both nine before we could read: I think in my case  this was because my mother read aloud to me so much, and this I loved very very much.

I left school, which one could do at fourteen in those days, and put in three years at art school. I did the general art course—painting in oils and water-colours and making charcoal drawings of the Apollo Belvedere from the north, south, east, and west!

I had not written as a child, I had not written stories. I wasn’t at all writing-minded at school.

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Rosemary Sutcliff spoke about when and why she started writing when she spoke on BBC Radio’s famous Desert Island Discs programme.

I set up as a miniaturist and found commissions coming in. In the war I had quite lot of work to do: quite often, rather sadly, from photographs of young soldiers who weren’t coming back, and things of that sort. I worked at home, and also at the local art school (in Bideford); I was allowed to use a room. I enjoyed it, but I found miniature painting cramping. I was a good craftsman—but I always had this feeling of having my elbows tucked too close to my sides when I was doing it.

I think for this very reason, that I began to feel that I’d got to do something to break out. 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 had not written as a child, I had not written stories. I wasn’t at all writing-minded at school. I don’t know when it started, I just wanted to write. And I scribbled happily most of the time through the war. It was quite dreadful, it was rather a mixture of Jeffery Farnol and Georgette Heyer. They’re both good writers, but I took the worst elements from both of them.

It is intriguing to plot the trends in the relative use of the three names Rosemary Sutcliff, Jeffery Farnol and Georgette Heyer.

Rosemary Sutcliff, Georgette Heyer and Jeffery Farnol

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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.

Source: Just a Lyric in a Children’s Rhyme: A long bank of cloud

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Historian, writer and journalist  Christina Hardyment judged Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff to be  an ‘odd one out’.

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.

(more…)

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Reader-follower-commenter Anne alerted me a couple of years ago to Rosemary Sutcliff’s comments on ‘gadzookery’ and ‘writing forsoothly’.

Victorian writers, and even those of a somewhat later date…saw nothing ludicrous in ‘Alas! fair youth, it grieves me to see thee in this plight. Would that I had the power to strike these fetters from thy tender limbs.’ Josephine Tey, whose death I shall never cease to lament, called this ‘Writing forsoothly.’ A slightly different variant is known in the trade as ‘gadzookery.’ Nowadays this is out of fashion; and some writers go to the other extreme and make the people of Classical Greece or Mediaeval England speak modern colloquial English. This is perhaps nearer to the truth of the spirit, since the people in question would have spoken the modern colloquial tongue of their place and time.

But, personally, I find it destroys the atmosphere when a young Norman Knight says to his Squire, ‘Shut up, Dickie, you’re getting too big for your boots.’ Myself, I try for a middle course, avoiding both gadzookery and modern colloquialism; a frankly ‘made-up’ form that has the right sound to it, as Kipling did also. I try to catch the rhythm of a tongue, the tune that it plays on the ear, Welsh or Gaelic as opposed to Anglo-Saxon, the sensible workmanlike language which one feels the Latin of the ordinary Roman citizen would have translated into. It is extraordinary what can be done by the changing or transposing of a single word, or using perfectly usual one in a slightly unusual way: ‘I beg your pardon’ changed into ‘I ask your pardon.’

  • Source: Rosemary Sutcliff, History is People (1971), published in Virginia Haviland’s “Children and Literature: Views and Reviews”.
 Edited, August 9, 2014; original version 22 March 2012.

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Extract from Oxford Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature on Rosemary Sutcliff.

Critics of Sutcliff’s work sometimes comment on its difficulty both in terms of the language she employs and in terms of the historical depth her novels embrace. But for Sutcliff herself, these sorts of evaluations of her writing were welcomed as compliments. She prided herself on never writing down to her readers, expecting them instead to be enticed into enjoying a compelling and demanding tale by the pageantry of history and the warm humanity of people in every era.

She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’ Sutcliff also researched her novels with exquisite care, and they reflect her vast knowledge of military tactics, religious practices, landscapes, and the material conditions and artifacts of everyday life whether in a Bronze Age village or in a Roman legion on the move.

Other commentators have noted the limited role that female characters play in her novels. Except for a few volumes that focus on a young woman, like Song for a Dark Queen (1978), which tells the tale of Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni who led a revolt against the Romans in a.d. 60, this is certainly true. Sutcliff often includes energetic and courageous women among her secondary characters, but providing insights into women’s roles in history is not among her greatest strengths.

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