I fell in love with this book second-hand, from Simon's marvelous review (which you can read here), and I know I wasn't the only one. Sometimes in these cases of sudden infatuation, the actual book itself can be a bit of a disappointment, but this was just as wonderful as I expected. I knew I was going to love it from the first chapter, where Rosemary Sutcliff recounts how her mother, "who was of the stuff that minstrels are made," told her young daughter that a stork had delivered her to the wrong house, that she was really meant for the next-door neighbors:
"It was a grief to me that I did not truly belong to my parents, but presumably I was unable to make this known; and when I was nearly four, and somebody said to me, in my mother's presence, 'What's your name, little girl?' to which I replied in a voice quivering with emotion, 'I'm really little Jeannie McPhee, but I'm living with Daddy and Mummy just now,' my mother was the world's most surprised and horrified woman. But she never learned."From the first page I was captivated by her narrative voice, warm, wryly humorous, frank, and generous.
I knew almost nothing about Rosemary Sutcliff when I started reading this, other than that she was an author and that she developed juvenile arthritis at a very young age. I wasn't too far into the book before I went looking to see what else she had written, which is when I discovered her fame as an author of historical fiction for children and young adults. I don't know how I missed her books, growing up. They are now in the "remote storage" sections of the main city library, from which I collected The Silver Branch this week. Unfortunately, they don't have a big selection to choose from.
This book, subtitled "A Recollection," is not a full autobiography (again unfortunately). It covers only Sutcliff's first twenty-five years (born in 1920, she died in 1992). The first reference to juvenile arthritis comes just a page or two after the Jennie McPhee incident. Again here I have to confess my ignorance; I knew nothing about the condition or its effects. Her illness had a tremendous impact on her life, though she refused to allow it to define her. In her first years, her mother provided almost constant care, which strained their relationship even as it brought them closer than many mothers and daughters. Sutcliff was confined to a stroller and then a "spinal carriage" (a wicker coffin-shaped contraption) until she was 7. She endured painful physical therapy and frequent operations, which meant long hospital stays. She does not complain about any of this, she simply describes it in a matter-of-fact way. There are occasional references to her stiffened knees, which in my ignorance I thought the only lasting effect. Then I came across a picture late in the book, showing her at age 20 or so, which made clear the physical damage caused by the disease, and perhaps by the treatments. It was the oddest feeling, as if the book had shifted 45 degrees, and now I was seeing everything from a completely different angle, one that made me admire Rosemary Sutcliff even more.
I found this book fascinating on so many levels. It is the first memoir I have read of growing up with a physical disability. I know very little about what resources were available for families in the 1920s and 1930s, but I can't imagine there was much in either North America or Britain, compared with today. Devoted to her care, her parents showed great resourcefulness. Sutcliff's father was a serving naval officer, which meant frequent moves and long separations. She and her mother were able to join him on only one foreign posting, in Malta. At other times they lived in officers' quarters in dockyard towns like Sheerness and Chatham, reminding me of Patrick O'Brian's novels. Education, another major theme, was a challenge for Sutcliff, who absorbed information easily but found study difficult. She did not learn to read until she was seven, in part because she preferred her mother's reading aloud: "I was reared on a fine mixed diet of Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Dickens, Stephenson, Hans Andersen, Kenneth Grahame, and Kipling. . . " Her relationship with her parents is another important element running through the book. Sutcliff was their only surviving child (an older sister died in infancy). Her father was frequently absent until his early retirement from the Navy. Her mother was an extremely volatile person, whose swift mood changes put great stress on her husband and daughter (Sutcliff suggests that she may have been manic-depressive). She was a demanding parent, who expected unquestioning obedience and stoic endurance from her daughter. She insisted that the teen-age Rosemary take regular two-mile walks, and she refused to allow her to use a wheelchair. Sutcliff writes about their difficult relationship, about the tensions in their three-person family, about how much she missed friends of her own age, with candour, trying to understand, not to blame or condemn. Finally, the later chapters of the book are also an interesting account of the family's experiences in World War II. Her father was called back to active duty, the dangerous work of convoys. Rosemary and her mother remained at their home in north Devon, which seems to have been one of the safest areas in the country. During these years Sutcliff, who had studied at an art college, began working as a painter of miniatures, while also secretly starting to write, which would lead to her true vocation.
Oh dear - reading this over, I'm afraid I've made this book sound rather bleak and dreary, which it isn't at all. I'll refer you back to Simon's review, which really captures the magic of this warm, wise, funny memoir.