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.