Monthly Archives: July 2006

Rosemary Sutcliff

I was at an antiquarian book fair today, and amazingly managed to restrain myself from buying anything. I noticed however that one of the booksellers had a Folio edition of The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, and I was prompted to think about her.

I think the first of her books that I read as a child was Knight’s Fee which I was given one Christmas when I was nine or ten. It had he usual plot for Sutcliff – a young boy (often poor or in some other way disadvantaged) grows up to make his way in the world, in other words standard coming of age tales. Except these always seemed different. I never cared much for the Normans (which is the period in which Knight’s Fee is set) but the next Sutcliff book I obtained was The Eagle of the Ninth and I knew I had found a favourite. That copy has long since fallen to pieces, and it was replaced, although that Folio edition is exerting its attractions. As a child, I also obtained most of the other books in the dolphin ring sequence – The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind etc. Using the ring as a link between all these novels was an interesting device, that still allowed Sutcliff to tell the story of the impact of the fall of Rome on these islands.

I think, of her books that I owned then the only one I really didn’t like was Warrior Scarlet, and I’m not sure why.

Of course, long after I ceased reading her books, she continued writing and I recently acquired some of her later works as well as some of her earliest. In Simon (published 1953 and now out of print) we have the story of a friendship sundered by the Civil War, where one boy joins Cromwell’s army and the other the Royalist army. It’s interesting – Sutcliff hadn’t yet got into her stride, and it isn’t as dark as some of her more mature work, Sword at Sunset for example. In The Witch’s Brat (1970), however it was almost as if she were writing by rote and couldn’t be bothered putting more detail into the novel – it’s very short.

Sutcliff has been an influence on many writers including Lindsey Davis who dedicated her fifth Falco novel to her. I met Davis at the Edinburgh Book Festival some years ago and she said that for her too Sutcliff had been a childhood favourite.

There’s an interesting lit blog covering her work at Rosemary Sutcliff: an appreciation.


On the run: The Last Days of Newgate, Andrew Pepper (2006)

Advertised on the cover as the first of the Pyke mysteries, this debut crime novel provided a good read. The protagonist, Pyke is more anti-hero than hero, a very morally ambiguous character, but less of a hypocrite about it than some of the other characters. Nothing is black and white in this novel.

Set in 1829, as both the Catholic Emancipation Act and the Metropolitan Police Act were passed, Pyke is that dying breed, a Bow Street Runner. His attempts to investigate a hideous murder are hindered at every turn, and soon his very life is in danger, as he is framed for another murder. Set against the dark background of London’s rookeries, reeking with the stench and filth of detritius both human and animal, it is well written and holds the attention throughout. While Pepper, an English lecturer from Belfast, makes no claims to historical accuracy in his endnote, it struck me as largely true to the period, if there were one or two clangers that sounded for me. Interestingly they were largely to do with religion; there were a number of occasions where the religion of the characters was mentioned in circumstances where I couldn’t see that it was relevant. For example, a mob in London was described as a Protestant mob, which didn’t seem quite right to me.

Be warned that the novel contains some extremely gory scenes, perhaps even gratuitously so, to the extent that I do wonder if Pepper was writing more to shock than anything else.

Doctor who? Crippen, John Boyne (2004)

This book was recommended by a friend, and as I hadn’t come across Boyne before I was interested to see how he handled his subject. It’s a difficult one – we all know (at least vaguely) what happened in the end because for some reason, almost a hundred years after the events, the name of Dr Crippen has survived in popular memory. Wikipedia entry for those who have no idea who he was.
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If I should die: A Foreign Field, by Ben MacIntyre (2002)

This is another book I would have been unlikely to have read unless I had been given it. Once again, it is more narrative non-fiction that history per se. It tells the story of four soldiers, members of the original BEF who were trapped behind enemy lines in 1914 during the retreat from Mons. In microcosm it tells the tale of the many men in similar positions although none appear to have suffered quite such an extraordinary fate.

Like many, they were sheltered by French villagers, only in their case was their fate stranger. Many of these soldiers did not last long – the villagers, believing the threats of the occupying Germans (often with good reason) handed them over, or the soldiers themselves surrendered. But not our four. They survived until May 1916 when they were eventually betrayed and shot as spies. This isn’t giving away anything – it’s on the blurb on the cover of the book.

What I found with this book, even more than with the Janet Morgan I reviewed recently, is that it reads almost like a novel. While these soldiers were real people, they are treated like characters in a plot, and the narrative as if it were a tragedy complete with hero and fatal flaw. The only problem I have with this is that it is being presented in some objective sense as ‘true’ when in fact it’s nothing of the kind. It’s very readable, and very sad, but I’m not sure that it’s history.

I know that some of you who read this blog are either historians or have an interest in history, and I would welcome your views on this type of writing.

Making it fit: avoiding anachronistic language

George Simmers had a post on his blog the other day about the use of facetiousness in writing at the time of the Great War. He included a quote from Pat Barker to the effect that she had not replicated this type of language among the officers in Regeneration as she felt it wouldn’t play well to today’s audience. It certainly seems a bit silly, but I can see that this type of humour is a way of coping with an impossible situation, and I would trust my readers to understand that.

However, even if one is not attempting to write pastiche, the addition of correct slang and speech patterns can be an important factor in characterisation, if hard to replicate accurately. For example, the language in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels is wonderful, with subtle differences between the characters. Of course, I’m speaking of a historical context here, but the point stands for contemporary fiction.

Aside from the OED, which most people’s budgets can’t stretch to, there are a number of slang dictionaries available, of which the most comprehensive has to be Eric Partridge’s – see my list of recommended books. He also produced a number of more specialised slang dictionaries one of which covers Great War slang, The Long Trail, What the British Soldier Sang & Said 1914-18, sadly long out of print. What I found fascinating about that was the number of phrases and words that are still current. For the Georgian and early Victorian periods there is of course The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose, the 1811 edition of which is available as a download from the Gutenberg project. Reading that, I immediately saw where Georgette Heyer got most of her slang. A later Victorian one, which uses Grose as a source, but which also includes many later words, is the Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1859) by John Camden Hotton. Sadly this does not seem to be as widely available as it is a treat.

Derring do in Ruritania: The Emerald Crown, Violet Needham (1940)

For her second novel, Needham returned to the world of the Empire and Flavonia, and that stalwart of children’s literature – the long lost monarch plot. It’s another enjoyable romp of a story, with its youthful protagonists firmly in the driving seat no matter how much their deluded elders attempt to protect them. I always liked this one as a child, although I relied on frequent borrowings from the library as my mother hadn’t owned a copy. The book is very dated now, but is an interesting example of its genre.
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Soldiering on: Old Soldiers Never Die, Frank Richards (1933)

Most memoirs of the Great War were written by officers, and there are numerous volumes with titles along the lines of A Subaltern at Ypres. This is not to denigrate the experience of these men, but they formed a minority of those who participated. By comparison the number of memoirs written by the majority, the other ranks, is tiny. This book is one of them.

Richards served in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, and although a miner, had originally served with the battalion in India (hence his other book, Old Soldier Sahib) before spending some years as a reservist. Called up at the start of the war, he served with the battalion all the way through to the end, one of the very few to come through without a scratch.

The 2nd Royal Welch are well served in a literary sense, as two of its more famous members are Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, and it was also the subject of the detailed battalion history, The War the Infantry Knew written by Capt JC Dunn. I am currently struggling my way through this and have been for some months. It is fascinating being able to compare the different experiences of men who served with the same unit and their differing perceptions of what happened. Richards started off a private, and largely through choice we are told, ended the war that way. He says he had no desire for the responsibility NCO rank would have brought, but reports that others jumped from the rank of private sometimes straight to sergeant depending on how badly they were needed.

It’s a very chatty book, and reading it I got the impression that Richards recorded his experiences as if recounting them to a group of mates down the pub. He was wise to do so rather than attempt a more literary style, as that would have been forced and come over as less genuine, although I understand that Graves gave him some help with the editing.

An annotated version providing maps (which I always find helpful) and some more biographical detail, edited by John Krijnen and David Langley is also available(scroll down).

Similar, but written in a very different style is With a Machine Gun to Cambrai by George Coppard, a corporal in the Machine Gun Corps, which I read last year and thoroughly enjoyed.