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

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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Cover of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks was nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Holly Sykes, the heroine, appears in some form in each of its six segments, which begin in 1984 and stretch to 2034. The sixth and final portion imagines a near future in which an ‘Endarkment’ has reset the world into barbaric times.

In an interview for an online magazine about books, arts, and culture—The Millions— David Mitchell was asked whether any specific sources inspired his vision of how the world might look in twenty years time. He spoke first of a “really good book published in the 1950s called The Death of Grass where a killer virus doesn’t kill us, humans…but gets the crops we eat”. The second source of inspiration was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth series, which is “the book that Holly is reading to the kids in the last section”.

Cover of The Lantern Bearers

 

Cover of The Death of Grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosemary Sutcliff … was an English, wheelchair-bound classicist in the 1950s who wrote about the Romans leaving Britain and the collapse of Roman civilization. The series focuses on the power vacuums a collapse of that magnitude leaves, and how the innocents always end up having to pay more then the soldiers. Those books are colossal. They are fantastic. In the third book of the trilogy, The Lantern Bearers, the best of the three, there is a scene where the Roman ships leave the shores of Britain for the last time, and they know it’s the last time. What are they leaving behind? What’s going to happen to these people? That’s what was at the forefront of my mind—really how our world will look to my daughter as she grows—as I was writing that last section.

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The Independent (London) —August 20, 1992—published some comments on their obituary of Rosemary Sutcliff, which noted that she had “a feeling for the mending side of life”.

Last year I interviewed Rosemary Sutcliff on the Arthurian theme in her fiction.

The published text arrived a matter of days before her death and on rereading the transcript I was reminded of her vitality and enthusiasm, of an honest approach which combined scholarship with an unsentimental attitude to pain and suffering.

As Julia Eccleshare observed of her writing (of the obituary), allusions to historical sources are present but never signposted, the battle narrative magnificent yet never glorifying the strife it depicts. These traits were most apparent perhaps in her adult novel Sword at Sunset, the ‘autobiography’ of King Arthur, and the work of which she was most proud. But as Sutcliff herself acknowledged, she also had ‘a feeling for the mending side of life’ and whether writing of the physically and emotionally crippled, or, when following in the footsteps of her beloved Kipling, of the healing which happens when clashing cultures learn to live together, her prose was always characterised by compassion.

She felt that as the years progressed she had become a tougher writer, a belief reinforced by a reading of The Shining Company, itself based upon the poem Y Gododdin, which celebrates the annihilation of an army at Catterick in cAD600. (Sacrifice was always a theme which fascinated her).

Yet for all her seriousness, she remained a cheerful and remarkably modest author, seemingly surprised by her success.’You’re always terrified that the books you write are going to go downhill,’ she once said. It seems unlikely that those books which remain to be published will disappoint.

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Cover of Books for Keeps, March 2010

Brian Alderson founded the Children’s Books History Society; he was once Children’s Books Editor for The Times newspaper. Writing in Books for Keeps in 2010, he  recalled an anecdote once told to librarians by Rosemary Sutcliff in the 1950s: ‘That’s not a sand-castle,’ said the busy child on the beach, ‘I’m building a temple to Mithras.’

In all probability the temple-builder’s enthusiasm for the work came from hearing its famed serialisation on ‘Children’s Hour’ but (perhaps unlike television serials) the wireless version sent listeners straight back to the book to get the author’s full-dress narrative to go with the spoken one.

They were keen readers, those librarians – our first critics, long before the academic brigades were mustered – and for them, at that time, the landing of The Eagle of the Ninth had something of the force of a revelation. True, it did not come from an entirely unknown author. (more…)

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Someone who was once briefly Rosemary Sutcliff’s editor (I do not know where or when) used to post as Antonius Pectinarius at www.ancientworlds.net . He believed her best work was in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with The Eagle of the Ninth and ending with The Mark of the Horse Lord which was his own favourite. Writing in 2003, he said:

She had, as did Henry Treece, a mystical communion with the past, which enabled her both to recreate tiny details, and to confound military historians with her understanding of the art of battle in any situation she cared to devise. Her sense of place was uncanny, in that she could get no nearer to a site than the seat of a car on an adjacent road. Friends often served as her eyes, and also as her researchers, but it was the conclusions she drew from the evidence, and her re-creations of them, that made her contribution to the literature about the ancient world so distinctive.

Where she was simply embellishing recorded history, she was no better than anyone else.

She also had one of the rudest senses of humour in anyone I have met.

Source: Rosemary Sutcliff—more appreciation.

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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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