I found Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels quite late, it wasn’t until we’d moved away from the Lake District that I came across them. After leaving school I worked in a library for almost a year and I’m almost certain it was then that I first read The Eagle of The Ninth, written in the late 50s, and hooked by that devoured The Silver Branch and all the rest as they were published.
At the time her books were unusual because in the 60s Historical Fiction, apart from a quick look at the Romans, tended to start with 1066 and move on from there.* And yet Rosemary Sutcliff immersed herself in the earliest days of our island with books such as Warrior Scarlet in which a boy with a withered arm fails his warrior test and is banished from his people to live with those who were despised as weaklings.
She was herself disabled, having had Still’s Disease, and spent most of her life in a wheelchair. This was no doubt why many of her characters were outsiders who had to fight to gain acceptance. But what was always impressive about her writing, apart from her ability to indicate the past without once using archaisms, was her meticulous research. Using all the information available at the time, she made sure she knew as much as she could about the period she was describing and its people. She persuaded various army officers to help her, and spent time with them at key battlefields working out exactly who was where and what could have happened so that her descriptions of the action would be as authentic as possible.
Having discovered the story of the Lake District Vikings from The Secret Valley, I turned eagerly to her version of the long running guerilla warfare between them and the Normans in Shield Ring. Later, when I ran a Cub Scout Pack in Moresby Parks I told them the story before taking them out to Rannerdale where they enacted the final battle – all the ‘Normans’ allowing themselves to be duly slaughtered on condition that they could fight the battle again after lunch as the victorious ‘Vikings’!
Rosemary Sutcliff was very keen that her books should be true to life. Her characters often had appallingly difficult choices to make, and they didn’t always turn out to be the best, nor did they make everything come out right at the end.
No, she didn’t fudge difficulties. When one character in The Lantern Bearers chooses at the last minute to desert from his Roman Legion and stay in Britain to defend it from the Saxons, she shows just how hard that was for him, and how in the end it didn’t save him or his family. She describes his life as a thrall, and how his sister, given a chance years later to escape from her master, decides to stay because, ‘Heaven help me, he is now my man.’
I’ve wept over several of her books, though never more than over the ending of Knight’s Fee, the story of a Saxon dog-boy, who through the quixotic actions of his Lord’s minstrel is fostered by a Norman knight. He grows up with his son, Bevis, becomes his squire and goes with him to fight in Normandy, and there his lifelong desire to become a knight is realised – but this is no fairy story ending, he’s only knighted because Bevis has been killed in the battle.
She spares us none of his heartache and grief, none of his desperation, none of the unfairness of real life. My copy of Knight’s Fee has been wept over more times than I can count, but I’m always glad to go back to it, because every one of her books is enriching, enthralling, memorable and worth reading over and over again
It was she who first introduced me to the Romano-British Artos, the war leader who became our King Arthur. I’ve always been glad to have read that run of stories – The Lantern Bearers, Sword at Sunset and Dawn Wind.
* Geoffrey Trease also wrote about early history – especially in his trilogy about the Viking explorers and warriors; and though setting her work in the Middle Ages, Barbara Leonie Picard’s One Is One is an outstanding book which any lover of books and history should make sure they possess.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s memoir is called ‘Blue Remembered Hills’