I love her stories! I also love her impeccable historical research and her simple, yet poetic, prose. I love the magical transportation to another time where her characters become as real to me as the people I see every day.
Sutcliff is considered mainly a childrens’ author but her books address complex and elemental themes, all in an intricately woven and foreign background. Some are definitely for adult readers.
She was writing on the morning that she died on 23rd July 1992.
I grew up with Rosemary Sutcliff’s books
Rosemary Sutcliff’s books were part of my growing up. They were presented as novels for children but, on rereading them in my thirties, I discovered a depth of adult themes and adult emotions. I bought a number of them for my own children to read and got the double pleasure when they enjoyed them too. Before that, when my children were too small to read for themselves, I read aloud some stirring stories to them, their particular favourite was the The Wanderings of Odysseus.
It’s hard to really point to a favourite of my own among Sutcliff’s many brilliant books, but I have great admiration and a deep affection for Black Ships Before Troy and Song for a Dark Queen.
I adore Arthurian novels and have read, at least ten times, the classic Sword at Sunset a powerful adult novel with primitive mythological elements and solid archaeological research.
These three books have layers of understanding which only became noticeable as I grew old enough to understand the depth and complexity of human passion.
Sutcliff was born in Surrey, England, in 1920 and from early childhood suffered from Still’s Disease, a form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. At that time the treatment for this painful and crippling condition consisted mainly of bed rest and excruciating remedial surgery.
As a result she spent much time sitting still rather than exploring the environment and developed, as is so often the case with bedridden children, an acute eye for observation. She developed an acute ear too, from the immense number of books that were read aloud to her.
Her literary diet consisted of Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Charles Dickens, Hans Anderson, Kenneth Grahame and Rudyard Kipling. Her mother read to her from old stories of Norse, Celtic and Saxon legends and her mother’s own favourite novels by authors of historical fiction.
When Sutcliff was in her early twenties she “got the itch” to write. She used a pen which had been “fattened” and cushioned so that her arthritic hand could guide it easily. 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 it was not up to scratch.
The Early Books by Sutcliff
Not long after the Second World War, Sutcliff wrote a re-telling of Celtic and Saxon legends which was submitted to Oxford University Press. Although the manuscript was rejected,she was requested to write a version of the Robin Hood Story.
Sutcliff wrote The Chronicles of Robin Hood in longhand and, by the time the manuscript was typed up and returned, she had written The Queen Elizabeth Story and sent it on to Oxford University Press.
Elizabeth of England was her own choice of subject, and she said that she “found it a delight to write”. It was accepted, and the two books were eventually published in the same year, 1950.
This book, The Queen Elizabeth Story, was primarily aimed at girls. She acknowledged that this and the next two or three books were “a little too cosy and too sweet”. Sweet the story may have been, but I certainly didn’t find the story of Elizabeth cosy. It shocked me, moved me to anger and left me with a deep and abiding admiration for a great intellect and a great monarch. An excellent role model for a growing girl.
Many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books are out of print or otherwise hard to get. A number of them are classified as Collectibles.