Rosemary Sutcliff

A writer of genius, capable of conveying the feelings and lives of those who lived in the distant past


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Once a ubiquitous feature of childhood bookshelves, who now remembers The Eagle of the Ninth, published 70 years ago this year? Its author was Rosemary Sutcliff (1920–1992), the prolific historical novelist who wrote over 60 books for children and adults. The Eagle of the Ninth saw a brief revival in interest following a 2011 film adaptation, but alas that American production entirely missed the tonality of the novels and was swiftly forgotten.

On paper, Sutcliff — a disabled female novelist — is prime fodder for a literary rediscovery. Her 1978 novel, Song for a Dark Queen, about the life of Queen Boudica, even won a feminist book prize. But in other respects, her work is profoundly unfashionable and only getting more so. Not for Sutcliff the prurient explorations of trauma, or snide, subversive spins on the recent past that so entrance contemporary critics. Instead, her books are firmly in the tradition of an even more unfashionable author: Rudyard Kipling.

The Eagle itself is postcolonial literature all right, but of the sort that unambiguously identifies Empire with the light of civilisation. The protagonist is a Roman officer, forced out of the legion by a leg wound, who ventures north of Hadrian’s wall to recover a legionary eagle lost by his father. It’s an adventure story that could easily be transposed onto the North-West Frontier.

If Sutcliff doesn’t fit the mould of contemporary progressive fashion, nor is she simply a purveyor of hearty historical adventure stories. She was a writer of genius, capable of conveying, believably and movingly, a sense of the feelings and lives of those who lived in the far distant past. This sense of empathy she credits, in fact, to Kipling himself:

“When I was eight or nine, I tried to explain to my mother what I felt most strongly about the stories of Rudyard Kipling: ‘Well you see, other people write about things from the outside in, but Kipling writes about them from the inside out.’”

Kipling is famous both for writing children’s books beloved by adults, and adult fiction beloved by children, and the same thing is true of Sutcliff. I remember first reading The Eagle of the Ninth as a child, and feeling myself so deeply drawn into these alien experiences of people distant in time, but so close to us in space. Like most of her novels, it is rooted in Britain’s history, geography and myths — it’s literature that roots and grounds you.

From where did this extraordinary fount of creativity come? Like many novelists, from Kipling to Alan Garner, its origin was childhood suffering. Rosemary Sutcliff had Still’s disease, which caused her great pain throughout her childhood and left her wheelchair-bound all her life.

Kept from school, unable to read until the age of nine, often in hospital and isolated from others her age, the world of the imagination became her chief consolation and refuge, as it does for so many unhappy children. Authors such as Kipling and Geoffrey Trease, read aloud by her mother, were her escape.

The course of her life was permanently distorted by her condition — a career painting miniatures proved too cramped. It was writing with a specially-adjusted pen that offered an adult outlet. She produced 1,800 neatly-written words a day. Love, not easy for a woman in a wheelchair in the 1940s, briefly blossomed, with RAF pilot Rupert King. But the attitudes of the time intervened — and King married another woman.

The shape this tragedy took in Sutcliff’s life and writing is not a pathetic one. Far from introspection and self-pity, her work explodes with vigour. Characters march, run, ride, hunt, explore and fight, all recounted with a sharp eye for the limits of bodies, animal and human, and variation of landscape and climate.

The greatness of her stories lies in the details and the sensations that seem far removed from all of us

What lifts this above adventure is a delicacy of feeling, the telling of a story “from the inside out”. Some parts are virtually autobiography, as with Marcus in The Eagle of the Ninth awaiting a surgeon: “He was horrified to find that he was shivering — shivering at the smell of pain as a horse shivers at the smell of fire. Lying with his forearm pressed across his eyes, he lashed himself with his own contempt, but found no help in it. He felt cold in his stomach and very alone.”

Yet the greatness of her stories lies in the details and the sensations that seem far removed from all of us, still more so from a woman disabled by illness. Sword at Sunset tells the story of King Arthur — not the legend we have from Thomas Malory, but the Romano-British captain whose story has been lost.

But not lost after all: Sutcliff’s Artos lives and breathes; he is what Arthur must have been, a man living in two worlds, a Brythonic warlord holding onto the fast-fading shadow of Rome.

He is a warrior, in love with hawk, horse and hound, who is most at home sleeping under the stars with his companions and thinks “there is no pillow in the world so good as a hound’s flank”.

These “two worlds” are a persistent trope in her work, embodied by imperial Rome and native Britain, but reflecting a universal tension between aspects of human nature. On the one hand, as explored in a conversation in The Eagle of the Ninth, Rome offers “justice, and order, and good roads”, Marcus suggests.

But his Celtic friend Esca argues the price is too high: “Look now at this shield-boss. See the bulging curves that flow from each other as water flows from water and wind from wind, as the stars turn in the heaven and blown sand drifts into dunes. These are the curves of life; and the man who traced them had in him knowledge of things that your people have lost the key to — if they ever had it.”

These two modes of thinking are never straightforwardly resolved, but in the end it is the preciousness and intermarriage of both that are defended. Like Tolkien, Sutcliff is a writer whose work gains its power from tragedy — the fading of beauty from the world and the eternal struggle to hold onto hope amidst decay.

In the later sequel The Lantern Bearers, both Roman and Brythonic Britain are facing extinction in the face of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. At the end of the novel, with the fate of Britain still in question, one of the characters says: “I sometimes think that we stand at sunset … It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”

Though armed invasion has happily faded as a concern since Sutcliff’s lifetime, the possibility of losing things that are infinitely precious — ideas, institutions, sentiments — has rarely seemed so close, much of this through the simple indifference and triviality of contemporary thought and culture. Keeping such loves alive is the most urgent and important task we have, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s work is without doubt one of those things worth hanging on to.

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