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Archive for the ‘Criticism, Reviews, Research, Awards’ Category

One Alan Myers once compiled an ‘A to Z of the many writers of the past who had a significant connection’ with the North-East of England. It seems now to have disappeared from the web . He writes of Rosemary Sutcliff:

“One of the most distinguished children’s writers of our times, Rosemary Sutcliff wrote over thirty books , some of them now considered classics. She sets several of her best-known works in Roman and Dark Age Britain, giving her the opportunity to write about divided loyalties, a recurring theme. The Capricorn Bracelet comprises six linked short stories spanning the years AD 61 to AD 383, and Hadrian’s Wall features in the narrative.

The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) is perhaps her finest work and exemplifies the psychological dilemmas that Rosemary Sutcliff brought to her novels. It is a quest story involving a journey north to the land of the Picts to recover the lost standard of the Roman Ninth Legion. A good part of the book is set in the North East around Hadrian’s Wall (a powerful symbol) and a map is provided. The book has been televised, and its sequels are The Silver Branch (1957) and The Lantern Bearers (1959), which won the Carnegie medal. Sutcliff returned to the Romano-British frontier in The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965) and Frontier Wolf (1980).

Northern Britain in the sixth century AD is the setting of The Shining Company (1990), a retelling of The Goddodin (v. Aneirin) a tragedy of epic proportions. The story, however, is seen from the point of view of the shield-bearers, not the lords eulogised in The Goddodin, and treats themes of loyalty, courage and indeed political fantasy.”

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How relevant are Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels to contemporary politics and society?

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John Fitzgerald writes a piece about the referendum, about which he himself says (in his own words, in a comment elsewhere here)

It’s written from a pro-Leave standpoint and is quite religious in its outlook … So, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope it goes to show just how relevant RS’s novels are to contemporary politics and society.

Source: Londinium: The Fourth Rome? Guest Post by John Fitzgerald

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Signature of Rosemary Sutcliff showing her name is not Sutcliffe with an E

Helen has posted  a comment on her choice of best Rosemary Sutcliff book which speaks of “the features which make up the ‘sum of parts’ that are a Rosemary Sutcliff  novel” and  “the indefinable minstrel’s magic that makes it all alive”:

  • A hero, set apart from his peers both by his injury and his past
  • Landscape and the seasons as living entities in themselves
  • Friendship
  • Adventure
  • Scenes of slow tension and thrilling escape
  • Flashes of both humour and horror
  • The sense and quest for justice and fairness
  • The clash of two worlds and the places where the distance narrows to nothing between them
  • The relationship between man and dog, and to a lesser degree, man and horse
  • The slow romance
  • Understanding of a military world
  • The hopeful, ‘song of new beginnings’ ending
  • Devon. Of course, Devon!

And what, dear reader and Rosemary Sutcliff enthusiast, do you think? Do post a comment below.

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From the cover of Rosemary Sutcliff's autobiography The Blue Remembered Hills

Rosemary Sutcliff‘s 1954 children’s classic The Eagle of the Ninth (still in print more than 50 years on) is the first of a series of novels in which Sutcliff, who died in 1992, explored the cultural borderlands between the Roman and the British worlds – “a place where two worlds met without mingling” as she describes the British town to which Marcus, the novel’s central character, is posted.

Marcus is a typical Sutcliff hero, a dutiful Roman who is increasingly drawn to the British world of “other scents and sights and sounds; pale and changeful northern skies and the green plover calling”. This existential cultural conflict gets even stronger in later books like The Lantern Bearers and Dawn Wind, set after the fall of Rome, and has modern resonance. But Sutcliff was not just a one-trick writer.

The range of her novels spans from the Bronze Age and Norman England to the Napoleonic wars. Two of her best, The Rider of the White Horse and Simon, are set in the 17th century and are marked by Sutcliff’s unusually sympathetic (for English historical novelists of her era) treatment of Cromwell and the parliamentary cause. Sutcliff’s finest books find liberal-minded members of elites wrestling with uncomfortable epochal changes. From Marcus Aquila to Simon Carey, one senses, they might even have been Guardian readers.

Michael Rosen commented on this editorial:

Interesting that she was writing about the end of an empire at the end of…er…an empire. And does the search for the lost legion echo/refract Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?

Some of us drank in The Eagle of the Ninth two ways: once as a BBC Children’s Hour serial and second time as the book. I can remember hurrying to get home to hear it – moody, dangerous, mysterious – a quest for something real but long gone, a possible solution to an unsolved story…and somehow it had something to do with events that happened a long time ago just where you walked when we were on holiday: on moors, or on wet fields where we were camping. The book made a connection for me between a past and that particular present.

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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature has an entry on historical novelist and writer of literature for children, Rosemary Sutcliff. It comments on her use of language:
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.”
  • Source: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Ed. Jack Zipes. Oxford University Press, 2006.

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In the summer of 2009, The Daily Telegraph newspaper asked children’s writers and critics what books they would recommend for holiday reading. Acclaimed author Philip Reeve urged what he called classics, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Philip Reeve recommended Rosemary Sutcliff reading

 

Source: The Daily Telegraph, 3 July 2009

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The Eagle of the Ninth, original book jacket OUP

Sally Hawkins, who writes for the Sunday Times, was asked to choose a ‘special book’ that changed her life, and explain why it means so much to her.

When I was eight, my taste suddenly moved on from What Katy Did at School and Swallows and Amazons to history. History with boys in it. The Eagle of the Ninth wasn’t the first historical novel I read, but it is one I found myself caught up in all over again, when the film version appeared in 2011. Fifty years on, I found its you-were-there depiction of Roman Britain and gripping plot as beguiling as ever.

I now realise I can trace my academic choices back to this tale of a young man searching for a lost legion — and missing father. Rosemary Sutcliff based it on authentic sources, and this intrigued me. The novel fired my interest in history; it was lurking behind my teenage passion for the First World War poets; and, from there, it was just a short step to my signing up for postgraduate degrees in medieval literature.

Re-reading Sutcliff, I realise just how un-condescending to younger readers her style and vocabulary are: what they don’t understand will just have to be looked up in a dictionary or on the internet. But the story is so compellingly told, they won’t be put off. More important, the book taught the younger me about friendship, courage and integrity. Sutcliff’s heroes are models of how to be good people, but never priggish or unbelievable. I bet George R R Martin read this book before embarking on his Game of Thrones series. The Wall for him is as potent a symbol of the divide between civilisation and darkness as it is for Sutcliff’s young Roman officer.

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