9 April 2012

Rosemary Sutcliff: an appreciation

This article was on the Historical Novel Society's webpages for some years, but due to a recent revamp of the website it has been removed.  It was originally published in Solander 8, December 2000, 2-6.

 Rosemary Sutcliff: an appreciation 

Rosemary Sutcliff was born in a blizzard on 14 December 1920. The place was East Clandon in Surrey and in her autobiography, Blue Remembered Hills (1983), she is rather rueful about having been born in Surrey, feeling that the West Country was really her home. Her father was in the Navy, though there were many doctors amongst her ancestors, plus a few farmers and Quaker merchants. Her mother’s brothers all went to live in India to spend their lives working on building railways.

As a child she had Still’s Disease, a form of juvenile arthritis. The effect of this led to many stays in hospital for painful remedial operations. As a very young girl, the arsenic in her medicine caused her to have hallucinations; she saw a panther, wolves and snakes despite not knowing what they were. However, years later, she was to meet them in Kipling’s books. Another effect of illness was that she spent much time sitting still looking, rather than moving around and investigating. This meant that she developed an acute eye for observation. Alan Garner (Wintle 1974, 224) comments that children’s authors often have two things in common – they were deprived of the usual primary schooling and they were ill and left to their own company, which was certainly true of Sutcliff.
Due to her father’s postings she moved frequently – living in Malta, Streatham (London), Chatham Dockyard, Sheerness Dockyard and North Devon.  She had an uneasy relationship with her mother, but admitted that “very few of the worthwhile things in this world are all easy”.  Her mother disciplined her rigorously, so that the child Sutcliff would take her spankings in proud silence, and later in life found it very difficult to cry, believing it shameful.

Her mother read to her very willingly, and never got tired of reciting stories.  Sutcliff was reared on a diet of Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Charles Dickens, Hans Anderson, Kenneth Grahame and Rudyard Kipling. She was read Norse, Celtic and Saxon legends, and also historical novels which her mother loved. Surprisingly, Sutcliff did not learn to read until the age of nine.
After the period of travelling, the small family finally settled down to live in the Devon area. For Sutcliff, these years alternated between hospital and school. One of the hospitals had a Guide pack; the only badge that Sutcliff won was the Artist’s Badge.  In the hospital library she found a book that proved to be the treasure of her childhood. Called Emily of New Moon, it was a Canadian novel that followed a girl’s adventures and her attempts to be a writer. When she left hospital, she left the book behind, and then much later tried to trace it, but did not recall the author. It was eventually found for her in the 1970s by a Canadian friend who was doing a piece on the work of L.M. Montgomery. The author of Anne of Green Gables had also written Emily of New Moon.
Sutcliff ended her formal education at fourteen, and went to Bideford Art School. She passed the City and Guilds examination, and was advised to make the painting of miniatures her profession. Now that she was considered an adult, any operations she had took place in nursing homes.  These she found very lonely, mostly having the companionship of aged ladies when she really needed friends of her own age. She was eighteen when the Second World War broke out. Her father went to command convoys, while she and her mother stayed in Devon. Sutcliff had a miniature displayed at the Royal Academy, and not surprisingly, the subject was a knight in 15th century armour. 
Around the middle of the War, Sutcliff “got the itch” to write. She felt cramped by the small canvas of miniature painting, and turned to writing to gain a larger vista. The first story she could remember writing was Wild Sunrise, a story about a British chieftain faced with the invasion of the Romans. In her autobiography she stated that she was happy that the story is now lost, as she felt that it was badly written, having too much of herself in it. She did regret the loss of her next story, which was set in the 18th century. It concerned a little girl sent to stay with her Great Aunt who befriends an embittered young man. Some of its themes re-emerged in The Eagle of the Ninth years later.

Not long after the end of the War, Sutcliff wrote a re-telling of Celtic and Saxon legends which she showed to an old friend.  He sent them to Oxford University Press (OUP). Although they rejected the manuscript, they requested that she write a version of the Robin Hood Story.

It was during this period that she met Rupert, who had been an RAF pilot. He was married, but showed clear interest in Sutcliff. They spent the summer together, but in the autumn he went to work in London. They corresponded throughout the winter, but when he visited in the spring, Sutcliff had a sense of foreboding. It turned out that Rupert had met another woman whom he eventually married when his divorce came through.

Sutcliff had finished The Chronicles of Robin Hood and sent it to be typed up. It took eighteen months for the manuscript to be returned to her, during which time she had written The Queen Elizabeth Story and sent it on to OUP. This book was a subject choice of her own, and she found it a delight to write. It was accepted, and the two books were eventually published in the same year, 1950.

This is where Blue Remembered Hills finishes, but she stated that from 1950 onwards she kept a diary, and that she met Rupert again twenty years later. This infers that producing another volume of autobiography was perhaps on her mind. Her mother died during the 1960s, and Sutcliff and her father moved to Sussex. Despite being increasingly disabled, she travelled abroad and visited Greece. Her father died in the early 1980s.  

Thereafter, she lived near Arundel with a housekeeper and two small dogs (Talcroft 1995, 146). These dogs were Chihuahuas.  In 1984 when one of the dogs died, Sutcliff waited for a decent time before getting another one to be a companion to the surviving dog, Sebastian. She was waiting in the hope that the spirit of the dog that had died would perhaps be reborn into another dog that she might own in the future. This belief in reincarnation had been expressed elsewhere.  Sutcliff said that perhaps the reason authors are drawn to certain eras was that they had experienced them in a previous life, so that they were essentially writing about what was familiar (Fisher 1974, 89). When someone said to her that she would perhaps be a soldier in another life, in reference to Sutcliff's heroes often being warriors, she instantly replied “No thank you, I had enough of soldiering”. It was as if it was something she remembered (Thompson 1987, 14).

Sutcliff was writing the morning that she died on 23rd July 1992.  She had completed the second draft of a novel (published in 1997 as Sword Song), with two more works waiting to be published.

Margaret Meek wrote about the process by which Sutcliff started her novels (1962, 12).  The idea for a story might come from an external source, such as visiting a house and wondering what the previous occupants might have been like when it was new, or perhaps inspiration would come from something Sutcliff had read.  Sometimes the idea would come from the inside, completely out of the blue.
Sutcliff used large red notebooks to make her research notes in. An encyclopaedia would be the first port of call, which would in turn provide a reading list. This would be presented to the local library, and when those books arrived they could be mined for the bibliographies in the back, as well as the information in the main part of the works. All the sifted information would find its way into the red notebooks.  Then Sutcliff would start to create a picture of the daily life of the era her idea was set in. This was the most enjoyable part for her. Not much of the plot would find its way into the notebooks, as Sutcliff would make a draft outline of around two or three thousand words, and then she would start to write. Ordinarily, she would write from mid morning until nightfall.
Sutcliff tended to write the drafts of her novels in longhand (Moss, 1992), producing three drafts plus a fair copy.  She often wrote 1,800 words per day in a small clear script on a single folio sheet.  Her pen was “fattened” and cushioned so that her arthritic hand could guide it easily (Moss, 1992). The process of producing a whole book would take a couple of months’ research, followed by around eight months’ writing.
Sutcliff wrote over fifty books (see the list at the end of this article), some of which were translated into fifteen languages.  She also wrote plays for the radio and stage.
Finding a voice
The Queen Elizabeth Story, Sutcliff’s second book, was primarily aimed at little girls. She acknowledged that this and the next two or three books were a little too cosy and too sweet (Sutcliff 1992, 169). However, she was aware that it was her apprenticeship phase of writing. It was Sutcliff's fifth book, Simon, published in 1953, that really showed what she could do, and this was recognised by the critics (Talcroft, 1995, 3). The book is longer and more complex than her previous works.  Set during the English Civil War, it is the story of Roundhead Simon and how his childhood friendship with Cavalier Amias is wrecked by the war. According to Meek, it shows all the traits that became fully developed in later books (1962, 32). However, Simon is not handicapped in some way, or of a surly temperament, unlike many of the characters Sutcliff wrote about later.
The next year saw the publication of what is probably Sutcliff’s most famous book – The Eagle of the Ninth. The hero, Marcus Flavius Aquila, is invalided out of the Roman army and seeks to find out what happened to the ill-fated Ninth Legion. This is the first book to be set in the Roman period, and Marcus remained one of Sutcliff’s favourite characters, although she was aware that many people found him to be difficult and prickly.  However, she justified this by pointing out that he had undergone some awful experiences (Thompson, 1987, 13). This book also saw the first appearance of a device which provides continuity between several books: a heavy signet ring which was set with a flawed emerald bezel on which a dolphin was engraved. The ring also appears in The Silver Branch, Frontier Wolf, The Lantern Bearers, Sword at Sunset, Dawn Wind, The Shield Ring and Sword Song.  These linked books were written over a period of over 35 years.  

Evans-Gunther points out that a virtual family tree of the Aquila family can be compiled because the connections are so well illustrated (1993, 7). The line runs clearly from Marcus Aquila in Eagle of the Ninth  (129AD) to Owain in Dawn Wind (6th century), with the ring appearing in the other books though not obviously connected to Aquila’s descendants. Sutcliff stated that she had a  “ ... terrific thing about continuity” (Fisher 1974, 186), so it is likely to be a very deliberate strategy. As well as the Dolphin ring, she set The Knight’s Fee (11th century) and Warrior Scarlet (Prehistoric) in the same hills, and used a flint axe in both stories to indicate the historical ties to that land (Fisher 1974, 186). 
Continuity is very much a Kipling tradition; he acknowledges the settling of England by many peoples, and the way they eventually learn together to create a new nationality (1962, 52). Also, Kipling emphasises the rite of passage from youth to adulthood.  Sutcliff was happy to admit her debt to Kipling, and wrote an appreciation of him in 1960.
Throughout her childhood, Sutcliff was steeped in the myths and legends read to her by her mother. Later, she visited a local bookshop to read Fraser’s The Golden Bough, a huge work that contained the ideas and background to sacred kingship and primitive religion that were to surface in her novels in various forms.

Barbara Talcroft’s important study of Sutcliff’s works with reference to this aspect picks out three major elements in her writing: Goddess, Sacrificial King and Maimed King. The relationship that a king has with the Goddess provides him with his legitimacy as a rule. The Goddess can take many forms and represent various aspects of life. For example, she can be a maiden, a consort, or a hag, and these can be linked with the phases of the moon: the crescent moon being the goddess of birth and growth, the full moon the goddess of love and war, and the waning moon being associated with the hag of divination and death (Talcroft 1995, 25).

The sacrificial king has an obligation to sacrifice himself for the good of his people and the land. The maimed king is a danger to his people as he might cause the kingdom to become a wasteland.

A novel that contains all three of these in good measure is Sword at Sunset, published in 1963. This novel is about King Arthur, or Artos as Sutcliff called him. The goddess appears in Ygerna (Artos’ half sister with whom he unwittingly commits incest), Guenhumara (whom he marries) and the Virgin Mary (who is symbolised by a moon daisy which is worn by Artos and his Companions as they go into battle).

The maimed king is Artos who fathers a child with his half sister. He sees this as a great sin and becomes impotent. Though he does father a daughter eventually, both his children are maimed in different ways. The daughter is sickly and dies in circumstances that cause a further rift with Guenhumara (so that he is effectively in discord with the goddess and the land). His son, Medraut, is maimed in character, being twisted by hate instilled by Ygerna, and seeks to undermine and destroy Artos.

Artos is also the sacrificial king, dedicating himself to his people and land, and eventually dying for them.  However, the most obvious example of sacrificial kingship in the book is Artos’ uncle, the High King Ambrosius. In the book’s prequel, The Lantern Bearers (1959), the young Ambrosius rejects marriage saying that “ ... To lead Britain is enough for one man, with a whole heart and no ties”, which is his first sacrifice. In Sword at Sunset he falls ill with cancer, and chooses to die hunting, trying to kill a royal stag – both Ambrosius and the stag are portrayed as sacrificial kings.

Looking at Talcroft’s analysis (1995, 126), it is clear that the kingship themes became most developed in the early 1960s, culminating in Sword at Sunset in 1963, and The Mark of the Horse Lord in 1965. After this time, the themes are still present in one form or another, but not so marked.

Sutcliff always became deeply involved in her books, but Sword at Sunset engaged her more heavily than any other book she wrote (Thompson, 1987, 13). It took some eighteen months to write, and absorbed her completely. She would write from 6am one morning until 2am the following morning, finding the process completely addictive. Usually writing in the third person, Sutcliff found she had trouble with this book, and only became satisfied with it when she wrote in the first person. It was the first time she had done this, but it seemed the best and only way. After finishing the book, it took her several weeks to get back into her own skin, after thinking herself so completely into the character of Artos. 

Sword at Sunset is deservedly one of the most admired historical novels about King Arthur (Thompson 1985, 47).  Though some traditional aspects of the legend are retained, Sutcliff discards those that she deems to be rather late additions, so that, for example, Bedwyr takes the part later played by Lancelot. Along with The Lantern Bearers, it is among some the first attempts at an historical setting for King Arthur. Rather than a just a Celtic setting, Sutcliff also fully acknowledges the strong role that those who had adopted Roman culture (and would have called themselves Roman) would have played in the fifth century. This is still a relatively unusual viewpoint, and it has barely been explored in historical fiction for this period since Sutcliff (Nastali 1999, 19). Combining as it does primitive mythological elements, allied with solid archaeological research, Sword at Sunset is a deeply satisfying book.
Dark and light
The theme of dark and light occurs in many of Sutcliff’s novels. The subjects revolve around invaders of one kind or another (the Roman advance in Britain in The Eagle of the Ninth or the Saxon invasion of Britain in Dawn Wind).  Individuals can embody the light or dark as Artos and Medraut are light and dark in Sword at Sunset, or have both aspects such as the greatly conflicted Aquila in The Lantern Bearers. It is possible that this theme emerges so strongly due to Sutcliff's experiences of living through the Second World War. The outcome of the war, taken for granted now, was uncertain then, and the threat of invasion greatly feared. It must have seemed that that Britain was once again under the threat of having its light extinguished.
Sutcliff is considered mainly a children’s author.  However, many of her books have a wider appeal, addressing as they do complex and elemental themes in an intricately woven and foreign background. Sutcliff thought that her books were for children of all ages from nine to ninety (Thompson 1987, 13).

That Sutcliff is still an influential and well-respected historical novelist is evident. Recently, Helen Hollick has made a deliberate nod toward Sutcliff and her last book Sword Song where the hero has many ship-borne adventures. In Harold the King, about the last Saxon king of England, Hollick named the lead ship in the Saxon fleet patrolling the English coast Dolphin as tribute to the linking emerald Dolphin that appeared in so many of Sutcliff’s novels.

In her 1960 monograph, Sutcliff laments that Kipling has gone out of style (Talcroft 1995, 2). The same may now perhaps be said of Sutcliff. Harrison, reviewing Hollick’s Arthurian novel The Shadow of the King comments that Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset is: “... obviously now dated in many ways.”  (Harrison 1998, 4). This is in particular reference to Sutcliff’s “telling” rather than “showing” style of writing, and Harrison herself finds the stories enthralling (Harrison pers comm). Although the “telling” style of writing does not detract in any way from the skill and beauty of Sutcliff’s prose, modern readers are often more used to the story being shown to them.

In the case of the Arthurian period novels there are now new theories, and stories that reflect them. Sutcliff’s Roman books for children are still in print, but other categories have not fared so well. In particular, her adult books are mostly out of print, with Sword at Sunset currently only in print in the US by Tor Publishers.
Rosemary Sutcliff was primarily a storyteller. She said that she belonged to the minstrelsy, and chose to present her stories in the way that seemed right to her. In doing this, in her own poetic and rich prose, she has given us books that are already considered as classics and will be read for many years to come.
Thanks to: Belinda Copson for commenting on the bibliography; Sarah Cuthbertson for the loan of the Walck book on Rosemary Sutcliff; Towse Harrison for some useful perspectives; Helen Hollick for information on Harold the King. Any errors or omissions are my own.
Awards given to Rosemary Sutcliff
Carnegie Award, Library Association for The Lantern Bearers 1959
Boston-Globe Horn Book Award, Tristan and Iseult 1972
Hans Christian Andersen Award, Highly Commended 1974
Order of the British Empire 1975
Other Award, Song for a Dark Queen 1978
Phoenix Children's Book Award, The Mark of the Horse Lord 1985
Commander of the British Empire 1992
Bibliography and References
1992 “Obituary – Rosemary Sutcliff”, The Times 25 July
Eccleshare J. 1992, “Obituary - Rosemary Sutcliff”, Independent 27 July

Garside-Neville S. and Hunter-Mann K. 1985, “Rosemary Sutcliff “ Dragon Society Newsletter Vol 2, No 1
Garside-Neville S. 1992,  “Rosemary Sutcliff”, Dragon Society Newsletter Autumn/Winter Vol 4, No3/4, 3-5
Harrison T. 1998, “The Shadow of the King” The Historical Novels Review December 1998, 4
Hollick H. 1997, The Shadow of the King, Heinemann
Hollick H. 2000, Harold the King, Heinemann
Lively P. 1992, “Obituary - Rosemary Sutcliff” Independent 31 July
Meek M. 1962, Rosemary Sutcliff, Walck Inc
Moss E. 1992, “Chronicler of Occupied Britannia” The Guardian 27 July1992
Nastali D. 1999, “Arthur Without fantasy: Dark Age Britain in Recent Historical Fiction” Arthuriana 9.1 5-22
Sutcliff R. 1983, Blue Remembered Hills: a recollection Bodley Head
Sutcliff R. 1992, Blue Remembered Hills: a recollection Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Talcroft B.L. 1995, Death of the Corn King: King and Goddess in Rosemary Sutcliff's Historical Fiction for Young Adults The Scarecrow Press
Thompson R.H. 1985, The Return From Avalon: a Study of the Arthurian Legend in Modern Fiction Greenwood Press
Thompson R.H. 1987, “Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff”, Avalon to Camelot Volume II, No 3, 11-14  [web version acessed 9/4/12 at: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/intrvws/sutcliff.htm]
Wintle J. and Fisher E. 1974, The Pied Pipers: Interviews with the Influential Creators of Children's Literature Paddington Press
A bibliography of Rosemary Sutcliff's works
1950                The Chronicles of Robin Hood
1950                The Queen Elizabeth Story
1951                The Armourer’s House
1952                Brother Dusty-Feet
1953                Simon  
1954                The Eagle of the Ninth
1955                The Outcast
1956                The Shield Ring
1956                Lady in Waiting (adult)
1957                The Silver Branch
1958                Warrior Scarlet
1959                The Lantern Bearers
1959                The Bridge Builders (originally a short story in Another Six)
1959                The Rider of the White Horse (adult)
1960                Houses and History (non-fiction)
1960                Rudyard Kipling (non fiction)
1960                Knight’s Fee
1961                Dawn Wind
1961                Beowulf (reprinted in 1966 as Dragon Slayer)
1963                Sword at Sunset (adult)
1963                The Hounds of Ulster
1964                The Fugitives (in Miscellany One, edited by Edward Blishen)
1965                The Mark of the Horse Lord
1965                Heroes and History (non-fiction)
1965                A Saxon Settler (non-fiction)
1966                The New Laird (radio play script)
1967                The High Deeds of Finn McCool
1967                The Chief’s Daughter
1967                The Man Who Died at Sea (in The House of the Nightmare and other Eerie   Stories, edited by Kathleen Lines)
1968                A Circlet of Oak Leaves
1969                The Flowers of Adonis (adult)
1970                The Witch’s Brat
1970                The Making of an Outlaw (in Thrilling Stories from the Past for Boys edited by Eric Duthie)
1970                Swallows in the Spring (in Galaxy edited by Gabrielle Maunder)
1971                The Truce of the Games
1972                Tristan and Iseult
1972    Heather, Oak and Olive (three stories including The Chief’s Daughter, A Circle of Oak Leaves, A Crown of Wild Olives)
1973                The Capricorn Bracelet
1974                The Changeling
1975                We Lived in Drumfyvie (written with Margaret Lyford-Pike)
1975                Ghost Story (a screenplay with Stephen Weeks)
1976                Blood Feud
1977                Shifting Sands
1977                Sun Horse, Moon Horse
1978                Song for a Dark Queen
1978                Is Anyone There? (a book on the Samaritans, editor with Monica Dickens)
1979                The Light Beyond the Forest: The Quest for the Holy Grail
1980                Frontier Wolf
1981                The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
1981                The Road to Camlann: The Death of King Arthur
1981                Eagle’s Egg
1983                Blue Remembered Hills: a recollection (non-fiction)
1983                Bonnie Dundee
1986                Roundabout Horse
1986                Flame Coloured Taffeta
1986                Mary Bedell (play)
1987                Blood and Sand (adult)
1987                A Little Dog Like You
1989                Merch Y Pennaeth (translated by Gwenan Jones)
1989                Little Hound Found
1990                The Shining Company
1992                The Eagle of the Ninth: Play (with Mary Rensten)
1993                Black Ships Before Troy: The story of the Iliad (illustrated by Alan Lee)
1993                Chess Dream in the Garden
1993                The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup
1995                The Wanderings of Odysseus (illustrated by Alan Lee)
1997                Sword Song

Sandra Garside-Neville is a reviewer for the Historical Novel Review, though she was given a sabbatical (!) to research and write this article.  She's a professional librarian and a freelance archaeologist.  The photograph of Rosemay Sutcliff on the front cover of Solander is from her private collection.

8 June 2011

Great Archaeology Movies: The Eagle of the Ninth

British Archaeology magazine's July/August 2011 edition is just out. Of interest to Sutcliff fans is a commentary on Great Archaeology Movies. Lindsay Allason-Jones, one of the UK's foremost Roman Finds experts was the archaeology consultants to the movie of The Eagle of the Ninth. Here's a short quote from her:

"... I was first sent the draft script, which I blue pencilled savagely. Several incorrect details still got into the film (spot the fourth century brooch) but the final product was a great deal more accurate that it might have been ... Some things I could not change - neither of the [lead] actors were confident riders, so the insurance company insisted on them using stirrups, despite my comments that it was hard to fall out of a Roman saddle ..."

At least Sutcliff's name was spelled correctly, even if Lindsay Allason-Jones first name wasn't (Lyndsey?!). And yes, I did clock the forth century brooch - think it was in the scene in Uncle Aquila's villa, if memory serves ...

2 April 2011

In praise of… Rosemary Sutcliff

The Guardian is doing great stuff about The Eagle and Rosemary Sutcliff. The article here has a neat summary, as well as a lively set of reader comments:


Re-reading: The Eagle of the Ninth

Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian re-considers the lure of Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth:


1 April 2011

One Take on "The Eagle" Film


One tends to approach the film version of a favourite novel with some trepidation, especially if it’s a formative novel of one’s childhood, as greatly loved today as it was when first read. Have the film-makers changed it? Have they ruined it?

With The Eagle, the film based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 children’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, the answer to the first question is ‘yes, and how!’

Whilst the main characters and the perilous quest for the lost Eagle standard of the Ninth Legion are still there, the film has no Cradoc, no Cottia, no Cub and the roles of Uncle Aquila and Guern the Hunter are cut short or changed. If you accept that cinema demands a different kind of storytelling from the novel and that it has time limitations, you’ll agree that it can’t embrace every nuance of character in a novel, or indeed every character; nor can it include every subplot, no matter how integral these are to the shaping of character and hence to the audience’s emotional investment in the story.

So have they ruined it?

I can’t help thinking that in The Eagle, the film-makers have slashed and burned with such abandon that the film bears only the most superficial resemblance to the novel. If I hadn’t read The Eagle of the Ninth I’d consider The Eagle a pretty good adventure film, more involving, more engaging than last year’s cartoonish Centurion, also based on the legend of the lost Ninth Legion. The film is well-paced, immediate and exciting in its chase and battle scenes (no freeze-frame or CGI silliness here); it has a strong sense of place and period – never mind the inaccuracies: most of the audience won’t care about those. And, no matter how little I like them, the changes in the story do have their own internal logic.

But I can’t un-read the novel. And without, I hope, my affection for it making me feel I own it (‘how dare they change what I love’), I think the film-makers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

The problem lies mainly with the central characters, Marcus and Esca. They lack the depth Sutcliff gives them in the novel and they don’t change as a result of the conflicts and ordeals they undergo (as epitomised in that horrible, trite ending). So it’s hard to take the heroes to our hearts – frankly, I don’t much care what happens to film-Marcus and film-Esca, I’m just enjoying the pursuits and the fights. Which, I suppose, is how the movie moguls de nos jours perceive themselves to be giving their target audience (young males 15-30?) what they want. I’d like to think they’d want more.

One of Sutcliff’s major themes in the novel is the bond of friendship and loyalty. The film keeps the master/slave relationship between Marcus and Esca throughout the quest, even reversing it during the most dangerous phase. So there’s no room for Marcus to free Esca before they set out and to declare, stirringly, ‘Esca, I should never have asked you to come with me into this hazard when you were not free to refuse…No one should ask a slave to go with him on such a hunting trail; but – he might ask a friend.’

Another important theme is that of the tension between conqueror and conquered. I'm sad that in the film there’s no Cradoc and no Cottia and therefore no indication, except on the most brutal level, of the clash of culture and outlook between Roman and Briton, much less how it might begin to be resolved. In the film, Marcus, if he thinks about them at all, appears to see Britons as unreconstructed savages from beginning to end. In the novel, his encounters with conquered Cradoc and semi-Romanised Cottia and her family, as well as his growing friendship with the enslaved Esca, all contribute to changing his attitude to Rome’s subjects, so that at the end of the novel he decides not to return to his native Italy but to settle in Britain of the ‘pale and changeful northern skies and the green plover calling’. Even if there was no time in the film for Cradoc and Cottia, surely the novel’s symbolism of Cub’s release or the wonderfully visual metaphor Esca makes from the contrast between the straight lines of the pattern on Marcus’s dagger sheath and the formless swirls on a British war shield could have taken their place? Surely there should have been room for at least one of these in a film nearly two hours long.

In sum, The Eagle, though good of its type, is a less interesting film than it might have been. But if it encourages people to read The Eagle of the Ninth and revives interest in Rosemary Sutcliff’s other absorbing, inspiring novels, then it will have done its work.

27 March 2011

The Eagle - '... admirably embraces certain unfashionable virtues ...'

Thoughtful review by Philip French from The Observer, 27th March:

First published in 1954, The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff's novel for older children, is now regarded as a classic. Her title refers to the standard carried by the Ninth Legion of the Roman army that disappeared in the north of Britain in the second century AD, and it's the story of how the young Marcus Aquila later sets out to discover what happened to its leader, his father Flavius Aquila, and the 500 men he led ...

See the rest at:


26 March 2011

The Eagle - '...a solid, watchable piece of storytelling'

The 3 star review from the UK's Guardian newspaper:

'Kevin Macdonald has made a decent, forthright, if finally uninspired sword'n'sandal drama, based on Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 children's novel The Eagle of the Ninth ... '

Find the rest of the review at:


17 March 2011

Sutcliff and Sword at Sunset by Annis

Annis has written an interesting article about Sword at Sunset at:


"Sword at Sunset is a vision of the legendary King Arthur as the man he might really have been. Rosemary Sutcliff has created a compelling and memorable figure in Artos, a Romano-Celtic warrior prince who spends his life fighting to stem the tide of Saxon tribesmen who flood into Britain following the departure of the Roman army in the fifth century AD ... "

With a longer article about Rosemary Sutcliff at:


"Ask any baby-boomer who loves historical fiction what inspired their appreciation, and chances are the reply will be, “Well, when I was a kid I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s books”. Out of print for years, Sutcliff’s novels are making a comeback as their original readers reach an age when they can influence the reissue of old favourites ..."

16 March 2011

Anthony Lawton's Rosemary Sutcliff Pages

Anthony Lawton has moved the Rosemary Sutcliff site to:


There's also a Facebook page which can be found here:


And you can follow on Twitter:


The Eagle, released in the UK 23rd March

Adapted from The Eagle of the Ninth, this film is eagerly awaited. Reviews from the US are currently a little cautious, but Sutcliff fans are likely to turn out anyway. This blogger is looking forward to the 23rd March!

7 June 2010

A Rosemary Sutcliff website ...

Anthony Lawton's web pages about Rosemary Sutcliff - lots of information about the forthcoming film of Eagle of the Ninth too:


29 March 2008

Rosemary Sutcliff Rides Again!

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in reissuing Rosemary Sutcliff's novels - and not before time, either!

Sandra posted advance notice here in January that Sutcliff's consummate Arthurian novel, Sword at Sunset, is to be reissued in May by an American publisher, The Chicago Review Press, with a new cover design and foreword by Jack Whyte. (NB on making the links, I see that it's available now on amazon.co.uk and on amazon.com.)

Meanwhile, another U.S publisher, Front Street, which specialises in young adult fiction, has brought out
The Mark of the Horse Lord (2006)

and Frontier Wolf (2008)

in paperback with very striking covers and high quality print and paper. Sadly the illustrations from the original OUP editions aren't included.

And what about her old publishers, the Oxford University Press, here in Blighty? Well, they're doing their bit too.
The Eagle of the Ninth

has never (I believe) been out of print since it was first published in 1954 and the most recent edition came out in 2004, marking 50 years since it was first published. New editions of the other two novels in the trilogy, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers, were reissued in 2007, so that all three classic novels are now available in a uniform edition.

The OUP will be reissuing Outcast in July 2008

and (according to amazon.co.uk, though it isn't mentioned on the OUP website yet) Warrior Scarlet in August 2008.

I should love to see new editions of Song for a Dark Queen, The Capricorn Bracelet, Dawn Wind, Knight's Fee, Blood Feud, The Shining Company, Sun Horse, Moon Horse...and, oh, all of her other wonderful novels made available for a new generation of readers. But this is a very promising and welcome start to be going on with!

12 February 2008

Opening Doorways in the Mind by Hazel Wood

This article is from Slightly Foxed Issue 17:

Opening Doorways in the Mind

by Hazel Wood

I grew up in a house on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a bay. There was an upstairs drawing-room which was never used, and in the evenings when I was a little girl, I would go up there and close the door. Kneeling on the window-seat, I would gaze out at the sunset over the sea and the clouds banking on the horizon, and escape into my imagination. In those clouds I saw horses and chariots, marching legions, the thronged streets of medieval towns, knights in armour, great ships in full sail on a golden sea – vivid images from the books my father read me. The worlds they conjured up were consoling and utterly real to me, and I lived in them more than I lived in the present.

Rosemary Sutcliff was the creator of some of those worlds, and years after I first encountered her through her early books The Eagle of the Ninth and The Armourer’s House, I came to know her again – insofar as one can know such a complex person – through her memoir Blue Remembered Hills. It was first published in 1983 and the cover shows its author sitting in a wheelchair in a garden, looking straight out. It is in some ways a startling picture for a book jacket, for her body, hands and arms are twisted by the infantile arthritis, known as Still’s Disease, that burned its way through her as a child, leaving her permanently disabled. But what to me is most arresting about the photograph is her direct and humorous gaze. It sums up the spirit of Blue Remembered Hills which, despite the inevitable pain it often records, is the very opposite of a misery memoir. It is a record of the growing up and making of a writer, and it is full of poetry, humour, affection, joy in people and the natural world, and the kind of deep understanding that can come out of some very hard experiences. It is a book I would recommend to any apprentice writer as an example of what really good writing is.

Rosemary Sutcliff was born in 1920, the only child of a naval father – a dear, straightforward man who ‘you could never for a moment have mistaken for anything but a sailor. He had a quiet steady face with a cleft chin, and grey-blue eyes crinkled up by years of narrowing them against rain and wind’ – and a pretty, manic-depressive mother with bags of charm and a wild imagination, who in an ideal world would probably have become an actress but instead found herself travelling from naval station to naval station – Malta, Chatham, Sheerness. And although she loved dancing and parties, she missed out on the social life that went with being a naval wife because she was caring for a sick and increasingly disabled child.

‘She was wonderful, no mother could have been more wonderful,’ writes Rosemary. ‘But ever after, she demanded that I should not forget it nor cease to be grateful, nor hold an opinion different from her own, nor even, as I grew older, feel the need for any companionship but hers.’ It was an intensely close and intensely difficult relationship – but as Rosemary observes: ‘Very few of the worthwhile things in this world are all that easy.’

Even so, in some ways Rosemary’s was an enchanted childhood, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards, ‘the smell of pitch and hot metal, wood and white paint, salt water and rope and oily smoke’ which would later feed into her books. There were the people, too, of these small closed communities – adults on whom Rosemary, as an only child who couldn’t walk very well, was particularly dependent, though she did make friends of her own.

Memorable among these was Miss Beck, who ran a school in Chatham for the children of naval families, with ‘no teaching qualifications whatsoever, save the qualifications of long experience and love’. ‘Any elementary schoolteacher of today would have fallen into strong hysterics or sat down with a banner in some public place after one look at our schoolroom, though I don’t think we ever had much fault to find with it,’ Rosemary writes. ‘It had mud-coloured walls with damp stains in the outer corners, three shelves of limp and weary school-books, a bit of unravelled carpet on the floor.’

In this unpromising setting Miss Beck’s students made cross-stitch kettle holders, drew elaborate kaleidoscopic patterns on graph paper and learned to read from a tattered copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When Rosemary joined Miss Beck’s Academy at the age of 7 or 8 she was still unable to read, but by the end of her first term, ‘without any apparent transition period’, she was reading anything that came her way. A lesson there perhaps? Certainly the description of the relaxed and happy days given over to singing around Miss Beck’s piano, declaiming verses from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, and observing what Miss Beck called ‘the Beauties of Nature’ make one think rather sadly of the world of SATs and League Tables in which children live today.

Sometimes Rosemary’s father was away on foreign postings, and then she and her mother were relegated to digs in places like Westgate, on the bleak north Kentish coast, or to the mercies of Uncle Acton, the good-hearted bad penny of the family, who had spent a brief working life building roads in India, was fat, funny and fond of the bottle, and given to renderings of the ‘Waikiki War Chant’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ on the Hawaiian guitar.

Interspersed with these were Rosemary’s frequent stays in hospital. They were lonely, often painful experiences, but even at this early stage in her life Rosemary could observe and admire the skill of her surgeon, kindly Mr Openshaw, who could cut off a plaster cast from hip to toe in one unceasing movement without leaving a single mark on her body. And of Mr Snow the instrument maker, much loved by the children, who would go to any lengths to make sure that his small patients were comfortable when he fitted them with callipers and splints.

It was after one of these stays that Uncle Acton had the inspiration of installing Rosemary, her mother and Uncle Acton’s long-time companion Miss Edes (Uncle Acton was not the marrying kind) for a six-week break in a bungalow called La Delicia on Headley Down, near Haslemere. Despite the frequent recurrence of what Uncle Acton called his ‘malaria’, which made him strangely unsteady on his feet, it was a magical time, ‘filled with the smell of leaf-mould and pine woods and bonfire smoke and frost; and above all of lamp smitch . . . to me one of those magical smells which open doorways in the mind, letting out the sights and sounds and smells of some other place and time . . .’

There were other magical times too – especially those when she and her father sat down together to look at the albums of his travels, their brown hessian covers ‘folded back with a heart-leap of expectancy’ to reveal fading photographs – of ships and ‘grinning faces in balaclava helmets, with icebergs in the background . . . Pompeii, with the wheel ruts of chariots deeply shadowed by the afternoon sun on a paved street . . . the Lyon Gate at Mycenae in the days when you could pick up shards of Mycenaean pottery as easily as anemones from the rough grass’. The writer in her was storing it all up, just as she was storing up the feel of the marsh country round Sheerness, and of the South Downs, where the family sometimes went to visit her grim Aunt Lucy.

When her father retired from the sea the family moved to Torrington in North Devon, where her father had been born and bred and where they had always taken their holidays. They bought a house called Netherne, perched on its own on high ground on the edge of Dartmoor, and – country people at heart as they had always been – it felt like heaven. They had hens, and vegetables, and an Airedale puppy called Mike, and her father wrote Sailing Directions for the Admiralty in ‘a sort of cabin’ in the garden (a perpetual job as they almost immediately went out of date). Rosemary loved her small bedroom with a view of the crown of a big lilac tree on one side and ‘Orion hanging in at the Dartmoor window’ on the other. She loved the sounds of the curlews coming in from the coast, the owls that ‘perched on the chimney to warm their feet and made eerie noises down to us’, and the magical moment of cockcrow in the first green light of morning, ‘a sound with a bloom on it, like dew, and shaped like a fleur-de-lys’.

The nearby school, however, was not a success. Rosemary left at 14 and went to Bideford Art School, where she was the baby of the class, treated kindly by the other students, but definitely not part of their social world – though in time she became extremely skilled as a miniaturist, whose work would even one day cause a stir at the Royal Academy.

Deep loneliness was beginning to set in, her mother was becoming increasingly depressed and difficult to live with, and neither of her parents could see that Rosemary, at 16 and 17, was in desperate need of company of her own age. So of course she fell in love with any young man who paid her the slightest attention – first with her cousin Edward, a bittersweet experience that ended with the declaration of war in 1939, when Edward, who was in the Navy, went off to join his ship.

Her father went off too, to command his own ship, and Rosemary and her mother were left alone to soldier on at Netherne in increasing isolation. And then, after the war was over, in the summer before the great freeze of 1947, along came Rupert, the son of a recently arrived neighbour, invalided out of the RAF, glamorous with darkly flaming red hair and ‘blazingly-golden hazel eyes’, who spoke to her as an equal – ‘the first person to whom it ever occurred that I could be asked out without my parents’. They grew closer and closer, but then Rupert clearly took fright, and eventually had to tell her that he had fallen in love with someone else. He broke her heart, and I felt my own heart breaking at the description of their last bleak parting: ‘Why does it seem so much more final when somebody goes away in a train than when they drive off in a car?’

Fortunately for us, however, she had just begun to discover writing and before long her first book for children, The Queen Elizabeth Story – ‘written out of heartache, but also out of something set free within myself’ by that searing experience – was accepted by the Oxford University Press.

There she ends her story and the rest, you might truly say, is history. It is a wonderful memoir, and one feels braver somehow, more alive, more philosophical for reading it. Because it is written out of the truth of the heart, it is timeless – the kind of book one can return to and find the same golden qualities again and again.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s Blue Remembered Hills (1983) is now available from Slightly Foxed in a new limited and numbered cloth-bound pocket edition of 2,000 copies, each priced at £10 (plus post and packing). Copies may be ordered by post (67 Dickinson Court, 15 Brewhouse Yard, London EC1V 4JX), by phone (0207 549 2121) or via our website http://www.foxedquarterly.com/.

(NB: Images added for this blog)

Total Pageviews