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Veronica Horwell wrote about the life and writing of historical novelist and writer for children and young adults Rosemary Sutcliff with affectionate insight 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 iswholly 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.

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Wonderful advice from Kurt Vonnegut to some high school students is re-produced at the Liberal Amercia blog. Practice any art! I believe and feel that Rosemary Sutcliff would have concurred!

Kurt Vonnegut letter

 

 

 

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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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John Rowe Townsend, author, who has died aged 91

Sad today to learn of the death of John Rowe Townsend, albeit aged 91, who The Guardian describe in their obituary as “not only a dominant figure in the academic study of children’s literature, but … a seminal influence on the entire development of modern children’s books.

Rosemary Sutcliff—as historical novelist and children’s book writer—was the subject an essay by him in his 1971 book  A Sense of Story. He observed  that Rosemary Sutcliff’s books amount to  ”a body of work rather than a shelf of novels”.

Day to day, minute to minute, second to second the surface of our lives is in a perpetual ripple of change. Below the immediate surface are slower, deeper currents, and below these again are profound mysterious movements beyond the scale of the individual life-span. And far down on the sea-bed are the oldest, most lasting things, whose changes our imagination can hardly grasp at all. The strength of Rosemary Sutcliff’s main work—and it is a body of work rather than a shelf of novels—is its sense of movement on all these scales. Bright the surface may be, and vigorous the action of the moment, but it is never detached from the forces underneath that give it meaning. She puts more into the reader’s consciousness than he is immediately aware of.

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Cover of Sun Horse, Moon Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff | UK Hardback editionCover of Rosemary Sutclff’s The Mark of the Horse Lord  | UK Hardback Edition

 

The Singing Light blogger has recently been reading Rosemary Sutcliff, loving the prose but not finding the book as good as The Mark of The Horse Lord.

 

 

 

Sun Horse, Moon Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff: Sutcliff’s prose is amazing as always–the descriptions of the land, of the seasons, of the drawings are simply gorgeous. This is a slight little book, and it shares many of the same themes as Mark of the Horse Lord, and yet it’s simply not as impressive as Mark, perhaps because we don’t have as long to get to know the characters, perhaps because Lubrin Dhu isn’t Phaedrus.

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Cover of historical fiction by Ben Kane | Hannibal Clouds of WarThe Irish Times has recalled that Ben Kane has been “described by Wilbur Smith as ‘the rising star of historical fiction’ “. He has written nine novels—and is a great fan of Rosemary Sutcliff. (The latest book, the fourth in his Hannibal series, is Hannibal: Clouds of War). He answered various questions on his writing life, at two points referring to Rosemary Sutcliff.

What was your favourite book as a child?
I read so many, and it’s long enough ago that it’s hard to remember. Either The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff or Sir Nigel by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
JRR Tolkien, Rosemary Sutcliff, Rene Goscinny, Albert Uderzo, Christian Cameron, Wilbur Smith, Guy Gavriel Kay, Michael Scott Rohan.

Intriguingly, Rosemary too was a fan of Asterix (by Uderzo and Goscinny).

Source: Brought to Book: Ben Kane on his writing life | The Irish Times – Mar 24, 2014

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Cover of Margaret Meek's monograph on historical and children’s novelist Rosemary SutcliffAround 1962 Margaret Meek wrote a monograph about Rosemary Sutcliff, only a decade or so into a writing career that was to last for another 30 years.  She spoke of Rosemary choosing names “with a poet’s care”:

Rosemary Sutcliff’s magic has certain recognizable elements; the names of the characters are chosen with a poet’s care, the dogs have a central place and are characterized with the loving attention children recognize and approve. The villains, such as Placidus in The Eagle of the Ninth and Allectus in The Silver Branch are acidly etched, although there is more reliance on traditional enmity and feud than on personal evil to provide the dark side. Episodic characters, singly or in groups, have a miniaturist’s clarity of outline. Pandarus, the gladiator with his rose in the battle, Galerius the surgeon, the garrulous household slaves, soldiers at a firelit cockfight or warriors at a feast, all are equally memorable.

Others more involved in the developing action, commanding officers, wise men of the tribes, outcasts, especially Guern the Hunter, Evicatos of the Spear and Brother Ninnias, have a legendary quality. Tradui the Chieftain at the making of New Spears, Bruni, dressed in the war gear of a Jutish hero dying as the wild geese fly south, blind Flavian, killed at the hands of marauding Saxons, all carry a dignity and heroism that link this series of tales with the legends Miss Sutcliff loves to tell. Indeed, part of the difficulty in evaluating the achievement of these books comes from the thickly woven texture which is as closely wrought as in many adult novels of quality.

  • Source: Margaret Meek (1962). Rosemary Sutcliff. New York: Henry Z. Walck
  • list of most main characters in Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels. re-tellings and books

(First posted 30 March, 2010; revised,  24 March, 2014)

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