14 December 2020
On the centenary of the great children's writer's birth, her godson Anthony Lawton reflects on what made her a writer whose appeal continues to this day
The Eagle of the Ninth, first published in 1954, is the book for which Rosemary Sutcliff is best known. An historical novel about Roman Britain, it is the first of a group of stories including The Lantern Bearers for which she was awarded the Carnegie Medal. Indeed, she wrote over 50 books of historical fiction and children’s literature but it is not as a writer that Rosemary Sutcliff is best known to me.
Lying beside me is a battered first edition of The Eagle of the Ninth inscribed by Romey, as I knew her, to 'Uncle Harold and Nell, from Rosemary with love, Sept 1954' — my grandfather and his second wife. For I grew up with Romey, a close family member and dear friend, a central part of my life; and much to my regret as I reflect on the centenary of her birth I recall talking very little with her about her writing, or about her appeal to readers of all ages. Certainly it did not lie in her schooling. She went to school for the first time aged about nine, after a long and painful childhood illness, and she learned to read even later. She finished school education — as she put it in her beautifully written recollection of her early life Blue Remembered Hills — 'mercifully early' at the age of fourteen.
It did lie in her childhood. She describes being read to by her mother a 'rich stirabout' of books including Rudyard Kipling and as the renowned academic and champion of children’s reading Margaret Meek once put it 'if you want to understand where Rosemary Sutcliff, as a novelist, came form read (Rudyard Kipling’s) The Jungle Books, Kim and Just So Stories out loud.' Indeed, Margaret Meek also wrote 'the best way into a Sutcliff narrative, a kind of initiation, is to hear it read aloud.'
Limited to her bed and a fearful contraption called a spinal carriage, Romey lived in her imagination and in the worlds created by her imagination; and she learned to observe and describe lovingly the details of nature and landscape. Thus she became early what she always remained above all, a storyteller in the tradition of bards and minstrels, and of storytelling which predates reading and writing.
She would tell me that stories came to her, that she was merely writing them down. True, once a story had come to her, she did meticulous research, keen to get the details of dress and homestead, of landscape and battle, as accurate as she could in the context of the then current history and archaeology. But she did not think in terms of plots, as much as themes and relationships.
It is the themes of her writing, perhaps, that explain in part her continued appeal to contemporary readers of all ages; themes of friendship and loyalty, difficulties transcended, the mingling of cultures. Her language is poetic and evocative; the dialogue timeless and lacking any of the 'forsoothery' she abhorred. Her powers of observation and description, honed in the confinements of her youth and as a miniaturist trained at Bideford Art College, are universally admired and were amplified in her published editions by such illustrator luminaries as Charles Keeping.
But above all, she told a good story; and it is as a storyteller I remember her. She would write in her airy study, perched back on her sea-faring father’s ‘captain’s chair’, propped up by the walking stick which was her constant companion. I picture her with my young son sat at her feet, being read aloud what became the story of The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup.’
However, to be a successful, widely-read, much-published author good stories were not enough. She was fiercely disciplined, writing every morning and early afternoon in her study. Her research she collected and collated in red hard-backed notebooks, a new one for every story. Every book went through three drafts painstakingly written in her spidery longhand on lined foolscap paper, before a final “polishing’ draft as she called it. The details of battles and buildings were checked with a network of informants she had built up over the years.
I would share my occasional forays into writing (non-fiction) with her — mainly I remember her injunctions about not spraying commas round. However, there was no chance of emulating her, not just because of the commas or because of my failure to interrogate her more closely about the nature of her skill, but because underneath all the art and craft was genius: as one obituarist had it in 1992, Romey was an 'impish irreverent ... writer of genius' (the Guardian).
Find out more about Rosemary Sutcliff's life and works here.