My rating: 10/10. Perfect. My only complaint is that it is too short. A stellar memoir by one of my favourite writers.
Rosemary Sutcliff, 1920-1992, is still very much an icon of the historical fiction world. Author of something like fifty meticulously researched stories, many focussed on Roman-occupation-era Britain, Sutcliff created works which have lasting appeal and interest across a wide age range.
The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Silver Branch (1957), and The Lantern Bearers (1959) are possibly the best-known of her works, and have been continuously in print since their original publication.
Rosemary Sutcliff herself was a personality fully as fascinating as any of her fictional heroes and heroines. Her life was marked with great physical suffering, which she dealt with by immersing herself in her creative work. When she was only two years old, Rosemary developed Still’s Disease, a rare and extremely painful form of juvenile arthritis. After the disease subsided, the permanent damage to her joints severely curtailed Rosemary’s physical abilities. She spent most of her adult years dependent upon a wheelchair, and wrote using a modified pen to enable her hands to grasp it.
Her enforced inactivity made Rosemary a keen observer of the world around her, and a great seeker of solace in literature. To while away the long, bed-ridden hours, Rosemary’s mother actively read aloud to her, and Rosemary so enjoyed these dramatic performances that she resisted learning to read herself until she was nine years old. Rosemary’s first written works were retold versions of stories dramatically told to her by her mother.
Blue Remembered Hills is a remembrance of Rosemary’s earliest years, from her first memories until the publication of her first books, The Queen Elizabeth Story, and Robin Hood, in 1950, at which time she started keeping a written journal. These journals have never been published, though they are in the hands of Rosemary’s literary executor, her cousin and godson, Anthony Lawton. He curates a blog and has posted some of the entries from her diary here .
The memoir is wonderfully well written, and contains myriad details of Rosemary’s early life, with a frank sharing of her thoughts and feelings regarding her own situation and the people around her. Discussing her extended family, this passage rather made me chuckle, and is a good example of the subtle humour of Rosemary’s prose.
Aunt Edith was a handsome woman with straight thick brows which remained raven black even after her hair had turned swan’s-wing white, and the bitterest mouth that I have ever seen on anybody. She, alas for them both, had married Archie, weak-willed and amiable, who did not tell her beforehand that he was a quarter Indian – his mother being the product of an Indian Army colonel and a rajah’s daughter – what would have happened if he had told Aunt Edith before it was too late, there’s no knowing. Maybe she would still have married him, but I very much doubt it. As it was, finding out afterwards, she refused to have children – I very much doubt if she even allowed him into her bed! – and set out to make his life a cold hell to his dying day. I have been there at some family gathering myself, puzzled as a dog may be by stresses in the air, the electric discharge of things I did not understand, when he came into the room, and Aunt Edith sniffed loudly and said, ‘There’s a most peculiar smell in this room. One would almost think that somebody black had come into it.’
For many years, the family were quite seriously prepared for Uncle Archie to murder her one day, and prepared, if he did, to go into the witness-box on his behalf and swear that he did it under unendurable provocation.
Rosemary also refers to in the most poignant detail her doomed love affair with Rupert King; the true tragedy of their relationship not in Rosemary’s physical condition, but in Rupert’s polygamous nature. Already married to a much older woman, Rupert persisted in the love affair with Rosemary, and, upon achieving his divorce, immediately married a third woman, suggesting to Rosemary that they carry on some kind of platonic three-way relationship so he would not lose the pleasure of her company. Rosemary actually considered this, and went to London to meet Rupert’s new fiancée, but soon realized that this was not a feasible option for any of them, and the two permanently parted ways, with Rosemary thereafter directing her passion into her work. Though the affair brought her much emotional trauma, Rosemary insisted that she was glad that she had had the experience of being deeply in love, and being beloved in her turn, because it gave her a broader depth of experience and brought forward feelings which she had thought never to experience because of her disability. A gallant lady.
I do so wish that Rosemary Sutcliff had continued this memoir to discuss her later years; this is a teasingly slender though richly filled book. Very highly recommended.
*Edited November 18, 2012 to add a link to a wonderful review I’ve just happened upon, by Steve Donoghue at Steve Reads.