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)

7 February 2008

Slightly Foxed



Rosemary Sutcliff is one of the most distinguished children’s writers of our time withover forty historical novels to her name. Blue Remembered Hills is the vivid and touching memoir of her childhood. (see p.13 SF No. 17; also SF No.4).

Rosemary Sutcliff was born in 1920, the only child of a naval father and a pretty, manic-depressive mother with bags of charm and a wild imagination. She suffered from infantile arthritis, known as Still’s Disease, that burned its way through her as a child, leaving her permanently disabled, but this 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 hard experiences.

Despite moving regularly between naval digs and frequent, lonely stays in hospital, Rosemary’s childhood was, in some ways, enchanted, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards, which would later feed into her books. When her father retired from the sea the family moved to Torrington in North Devon - it felt like heaven. However, the nearby school was not a success. Rosemary left at 14 and went to Bideford Art School, where she became a skilled miniaturist, eventually exhibiting at the Royal Academy. In time, feeling cramped by the small canvas of her paintings, isolated in the country and hurt in love she turned to writing and there found success and fulfilment. Blue Remembered Hills is a wonderful, timeless memoir critically acclaimed and much loved since its first publication in 1983.

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 the website http://www.foxedquarterly.com/.

5 January 2008

Sutcliff listed amongst the 50 greatest post war writers

Sarah Cuthbertson kindly brought this to my attention:

January 5, 2008

Rosemary Sutcliff

The 50 greatest postwar writers: 49

click here to see the rest of the article.

The item also makes a link to the Historical Novel Society's appreciation of the author

Sword at Sunset to be reissed

Sword at Sunset will be reissued in May 2008 as a paperback by Chicago Review Press. Listed on Amazon the price will be around £7.00 or $15.00. A foreword has been written by Jack Whyte, who himself is an author of a series of novels exploring the Arthurian myths.

1 November 2007

Sutcliff reviewed: Sword Song (August 1997)

Go for good writing -
Another of Blyton's traits I dislike is her laziness. I don't believe she ever researched anything - unlike her contemporary Rosemary Sutcliff, whose posthumously published Dark Ages saga Sword Song (Bodley Head, Pounds 12.99, ISBN 0 370 323 94 7) is packed with precisely described Viking sea battles and sacrifices in a linguistic smorgasbord of thongs, thralls and fiery-bearded men.

I was never a Sutcliff fan as a child, tiring too quickly of the sun glinting off the halberds of people with names that sound like Haggis Bogtrotterson, but the opening of Sword Song is a stunner: a 16-year-old boy is exiled from his settlement for the manslaughter of a monk who had kicked his dog. Beat that, Melvin Burgess.

Regrettably, the story quavers thereafter, meandering around the coast of Britain as young Bjarni sells his fighting skills to one fiery-beardy after another, but the dense historical detail and rich colours are all still there.

Go for good writing -
Times, The (London, England)
August 23, 1997
Author: Sarah Johnson

18 July 2007

Sutcliff reviewed: The Shield Ring (July 1992)

Nursery rhyme and unreason -
Children's Paperbacks
Times, The (London, England)
July 11, 1992
Author: Brian Alderson

The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff (Puffin, Pounds 3.99): This story of how the Norse settlers of Butharsmere held out against the Norman invaders is one of Sutcliff's most engrossing novels. It has been too long out of print and this edition should be the cause of much rejoicing.

23 June 2007

Sutcliff reviewed: The Shining Company (June 1990)

Violent land of our fathers -
Times, The (London, England)
June 9, 1990
Author: Brian Alderson
Estimated printed pages: 2

THE SHINING COMPANY, By Rosemary Sutcliff, The Bodley Head, Pounds 7.95

Y GODODDIN is not a species of baby-talk, but a tale of bloody strife, said to have been written around the end of the 7th century by the Welsh bard Aneirin. It tells how the High Chief of the Gododdin, Mynyddog Mwynfawr, called a hosting of the Celtic tribes at Edinburgh. There, for the space of a year, he trained a war-band of 300 princes and then unleashed them on the invading Saxons at the Battle of Catterick. Everything went wrong, and only one hero returned from the fray. But his exploits and those of his companions were celebrated by Aneirin in ``the Great Song that others will sing for a thousand years".

This Great Song is at the heart of Rosemary Sutcliff's Shining Company, thus bringing Aneirin longer life than he expected. For as he gave elegiac voice to the deeds of hero after hero, so she has taken the names from his telling and has sought to imagine them back int historical reality. Speaking through the persona of Prosper, the son of a Welsh chieftain, and eventually shieldbearer to the knight who returned, she begins by establishing a sense of the closed tribal world of the time after the Romans, and then introduces unbardic perceptions of form and motive. Personal relationships and the countryside of the Dark Ages become vital ingredients in the renewed story, and as the episodes pile up the ride to Edinburgh, the welding of disparate forces into a single fighting group so the reader is made ready for the great setpiece of the battle and the long dying fall of its tragic aftermath.

Such a theme is natural to Sutcliff's art. She is moved by simple concepts of loyalty and integrity that may be as foreign to today's children's literature as they were to the no-baby-talk Gododdin. But by admitting their possibility, while not shirking the real facts of ferocious woundings and pragmatic betrayals, she still persuades us that a bardic reading of the past is sustainable alongside an awareness of its squalor and its indifferent, but unpolluted, landscapes.

Section: Features
(c) Times Newspapers Limited 1990, 2003
Record Number: 1007894754

OpenURL Article Bookmark (right click, and copy the link location):

16 June 2007

Anthony Lawton's blog has moved ...

Dom's contribution is hidden away in the comments, but he points out that Anthony Lawton has started a new blog at: rosemarysutcliff.wordpress.com

Sutcliff on film? Eagle of the Ninth (November 2000)

The Roman Eagle has landed: Saturday Premiere
Daily Telegraph, The (London, England)/Financial Times
November 25, 2000
Estimated printed pages: 1

BRITAIN has never had its own Ben Hur. However, hot on the heels of the success of Gladiator, this may change.

Duncan Kenworthy (the co-producer of comedy films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill) has just bought an option on Rosemary Sutcliff's classic children's book The Eagle of the Ninth. Based on the true story of the lost Ninth Hispana Legion, which disappeared somewhere north of Hadrian's Wall in the second century AD, it is a romping tale about a young legionary, Marcus, who ventures into Scotland to look for the missing soldiers, including his father, and their standard.

It is an odd project for Kenworthy but it will be good to see the Romans in Britain for once. Let's just pray that the producer does not want to cast Hugh Grant as Marcus . . .


21 March 2007

Sutcliff reviewed: The Shining Company (July 1990)

Reliving a glorious past -
Children's Books
Sunday Times, The (London, England)
July 15, 1990
Author: Susan Hill
Estimated printed pages: 5

Rosemary Sutcliff has never tried to ingratiate herself with young readers by making her prose bland and easily digestible. The complexities ofher style are not gratuitous, but reflect the depth and complexity of her subject-matter. Those without an innate historical sense or taste need to be encouraged to read her, because they discover that she not only makes bare facts ``come alive" but attempts to make sense of them, and to illuminate legend, in human terms. She is also an extraordinarily rich, exciting and poetic writer. To those of my generation who thrilled to The Eagle of the Ninth, it is a pleasure to read her latest book, The Shining Company (Bodley Head Pounds 7.99), and find her still at the height of her powers.

The inspiration for it comes from an early northern British epic poem such sources are often the triggers for her fiction about 300 young, keen warriors belonging to the tribe of King Mynyddog in 600 AD who were brought together and trained for a year, as a fighting brotherhood, before being sent out against the invading Saxons. The hero is Prosper, son of Gerontius, a shieldbearer to one of them, and the story concerns him, his close friends and confederates, and his bond-slave. It is a remote time, and values and customs are completely alien to those of our own, particularly the concept of fealty and loyalty to a king, an individual lord, a blood brother. Rosemary Sutcliff gets under the skin of adventurous young men in trying to reveal what made them follow a leader and give their lives gladly in his service. It is as inspiring, and tragic, as any similar war story involving a ``shining company" of golden boys, and this intricate, compellingly imagined and beautifully told story makes period and people sympathetic and comprehensibl in our own time.


8 March 2007

BBC's Eagle of the Ninth, 1977

Finally, I found a good photo of BBC's 1977 series of Eagle of the Ninth, showing Aqulia leading his troops. Details of the production can be found here. Marcus Aquila was played by Anthony Higgins. This scene, was, I think also briefly shown in Togas on TV recently, along with a couple of other scenes. Any chance of a DVD release please of the whole series, Auntie Beeb?

From a pedant's point of view, the armour looks dodgy. As it's AD 117 they'd be OK with lorica segmentata, but it looks like scale armour. And the helmets are odd too. Perhaps they are auxiliaries? Nethertheless, I'd rather have a well acted drama with naff costumes than nothing at all ...

27/7/2017 Edit: See this blog post for links to the whole series on YouTube!

28 February 2007

Sutcliff and Simon Schama (October 2000)

Television Review
Independent, The (London, England)/Financial Times
October 5, 2000
Estimated printed pages: 3

THE PROBLEM with the past is that it just won't stay put: it's always shifting to accommodate our needs, our assumptions about the sorts of people we are. Not long ago, I re-read Rosemary Sutcliff's children's story, The Silver Branch, which is set in Britain towards the end of Roman rule. When I first read it, 25 years ago, I took it as a fairly faithful recreation of the period; second time around, what was striking was how obviously it was the product of the time it was written, the 1950s. The story has two young Romano- British patriots on a spying mission in Saxon-occupied Britain - sleeping in haylofts, evading the brutal Germanic invaders with the help of friendly locals: it's basically a Second World War resistance yarn transposed to the fourth century.

By contrast, Sunday's opening episode of A History of Britain by Simon Schama (BBC2) presented a much gentler picture of the same period. Schama disdained talk of "apocalypse" in favour of gentle change - Roman Britannia "morphed" into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the process was "an adaptation, not an annihilation".

Partly, no doubt, the differences between Sutcliff's picture and Schama's reflect advances in understanding. But Schama's version also said something about the way we live now: this was history for a multicultural society, one that embraces difference and defines its relationships with the outside world in terms of trade and economics, not wars and empires. Schama depicted the Roman occupation of Britain in similarly benign terms - the odd violent episode aside, it was a matter of seduction rather than conquest. Hadrian's Wall was depicted as a conduit for trade, not a military frontier.

Full article at:

Film rights

I've been contacted recently by someone from the US trying to find out if a particular book by Rosemary Sutcliff has had the film rights bought. I've passed her onto Anthony Lawton, needless to say. But she did ask if there were any 'fun' titles I'd like to see on film ... I told her the books that are most often mentioned by fans I've met (Eagle of the Ninth* and Mark of the Horse Lord), plus threw one in of my own (Sword at Sunset). Lets see if it comes to anything in the coming years ...

But which of Sutcliff's books would you like to see on the big screen?

*Yes, I know that Eagle of the Ninth was serialised by the BBC, but it's a fat lot of good if the Beeb neither shows it now, nor issues it on DVD

27 November 2006

Flowering Dagger

On exploring Google Book Search, I found a Rosemary Sutcliff short story. It's called Flowering Dagger and is in a collection called Within the Hollow Hills: an anthology of new Celtic writing, edited by John Matthews, published 2000 by Steiner Books. A few sample pages can be found here. It was originally published in The Real Thing, edited by Peggy Woodford, Bodley Head, 1977. Other contributors include: Robin Williamson, R.J. Stewart, Caitlin Matthews, David Spangler, Peter Vansittart, Henry Treece and Margaret Elphinstone, plus others.

Other books by or mentioning Sutcliff extracted on Google Book Search include: The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of "The Odyssey", Essential Fiction Genres Student Book by Peter Ellison, 100 More Popular Young Adult Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies by Bernard A. Drew, Honey for a Child's Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life by Gladys M. Hunt, Killing the Celt by Tomas Runmhar, Black Ships Before Troy: the story of the Iliad, etc.

27 October 2006

Update on searching this blog

If you want to search this blog specifically (to see if we've covered something) there is now a way to do this properly. In the bar on the right of the screen there is a Technorati search box. Just type in what you're looking for, and it'll bring back the results.

26 October 2006

22 July 2006

Sending in cover shots

Ross kindly asked about sending in other cover shots of Sutcliff's books. People are always welcome to do this, but please note the following:

1. So you don't waste your time, check the blog's archives first to see if it's already been included. You can either trawl through the monthly archives (see right-hand side bar) or search the blog, using the search facility at the very top of the screen. However, I've just tried it now, searching on Sword at Sunset, and it's only brought up the msot recent blog! Perhaps it's not working properly at the moment? I have tried to give the posts clear headings, so you should be able to pick the titles out pretty easily.

2. Ensure your image is about 25kb. A bit higher or lower is OK, but I'm still on dial-up, so anything really large takes ages to download. I'm also then in the position of editing the image down anyway for uploading to the blog. So keep the images of a modest size.

Looking forward to seeing some new covers!

21 July 2006

UK Hardback Cover: Sword at Sunset

Sword at Sunset, Bookclub, 1963
With thanks to David Mace who sent this to us.

20 April 2006

Song for a Dark Queen: brief review

Tony Keen, in his blog comments briefly on Song for a Dark Queen.

Update on 23rd April: Tony Keen comments on Rosemary Sutcliff.

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