Friday, April 5, 2013

Meeting Rosemary Sutcliff

Blue Remembered Hills, Rosemary Sutcliff

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.


  1. I would love to read this but will have to try the interloan as my library doesn't have it.
    I grew up reading RS and my lifelong love of historical fiction began with her books. I was delighted to see The Eagle of the Ninth series being republished last year.

  2. I've never read Rosemary Sutcliff, but you make her memoir seem so interesting and appealing! What a complicated relationship with books and story-telling she must have had.

  3. Cat, I've always loved reading historical fiction, and I can't believe I never came across her books! well, at least I have so many to look forward to.

    elizabeth, that's so true! It's interesting to me that she felt so little need to read on her own - she was so rich in stories already. For myself, I can't remember a time when I didn't want to read for myself.

  4. I also somehow missed reading Rosemary Sutcliff's books when I was younger but I do now have a copy of The Eagle of the Ninth and am looking forward to reading it soon. Her memoir sounds fascinating. One of my cousins grew up with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis so I would be especially interested in that aspect of the book.

  5. Don't fear - you have made this sound appealing! I have a friend who had juvenile arthritis and she suffered terribly. By the time I met her in her twenties she was much better, but still had really horrible days of pain and despair. She didn't let it stop her from fulfilling her goals, though, and it sounds like it didn't stop Sutcliff either.
    I've wanted to read The Eagle of the Ninth ever since I saw the film based on it last year.

  6. Helen, she doesn't go into much detail about the medical aspect - even why she had to have so many operations! but you'd probably pick up on more than I did, since I knew nothing about juvenile arthritis.

    Anbolyn, I had no idea this was such a common condition. It sounds awful, particularly for children to endure. I've seen a lot of references to the film, and I'm putting the book on my list. I think it was reprinted for the film so hopefully it will be easy to find.

  7. I've only read a few of her books, including The Eagle of the Ninth which I really enjoyed. I knew absolutely nothing about her life though so found this fascinating. My own father was in hospital from the age of 4 to 14 in the 1920-30s after a childhood accident but ended up in the Merchant Navy convoys during World War II. I'm hoping I can borrow this book. Thanks.

  8. Katrina, I hope it's not too hard to find - I remember your local library has been having some problems recently. I wonder if your father ever met Captain Sutcliff!

  9. This must be one of the few Sutcliff books that I haven't read because when I was teaching Children's Literature I would read whatever she wrote as soon as it came out. Do try and get a copy of 'The Eagle of the Ninth' before reading "The Silver Branch' because it is a sequel and then the tird in the trilogy is 'The Lantern Bearers'. Goodness, even writing the names makes me want to go back and read them all over again. 'Dawn Wind' is also brilliant, even though one particular part makes me cry every time I read it. You have so much good reading to come.

  10. Oh, Alex, thank you - I didn't realize there was a series, and I'd much rather read them in order. Just by coincidence, I found a copy of The Lantern Bearers at a used-book store today & bought it on impulse. They didn't have a copy of The Eagle of the Ninth, unfortunately - but I've put in a library request, and I'll put this one & The Silver Branch aside for now. I think this might be a Rosemary Sutcliff year.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!