Rosemary SutcliffCBE (14 December 1920 – 23 July 1992) was an English novelist best known for children's books, especially historical fiction and retellings of myths and legends. Although she was primarily a children's author, the quality and depth of her writing also appeals to adults. In a 1986 interview she said, "I would claim that my books are for children of all ages, from nine to ninety." Some of her novels were specifically written for adults.
For her contribution as a children's writer Sutcliff was a runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1974.
Sutcliff was born 14 December 1920 to George Ernest Sutcliff and his wife Nessie Elizabeth, née Lawton, in East Clandon, Surrey. She spent her childhood in Malta and various naval bases where her father, a Royal Navy officer, was stationed. She was stricken with Still's Disease when she was very young, and thus used a wheelchair most of her life. Due to her chronic illness, Sutcliff spent most of her time with her mother from whom she learned many of the Celtic and Saxonlegends that she would later expand into works of historical fiction. Sutcliff's early schooling was constantly interrupted by moving house and her disabling condition. She did not learn to read until she was nine years of age, and left school at age 14 to enter the Bideford Art School, which she attended for three years, graduating from the General Art Course. Sutcliff then worked as a painter of miniatures.
After being inspired by the children's historical novels of Geoffrey Trease, Sutcliff's first published book was The Chronicles of Robin Hood (1950). Her best-known book may be The Eagle of the Ninth (Oxford, 1954), which inaugurated a series sometimes called Marcus or simply The Eagle of the Ninth. For that first book and for its sequel The Silver Branch (1957), she was a commended runner-up for the annual Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's best children's book by a British subject. She was also both a 1956 and a 1958-runner up (thus four times in five years) before winning the Medal for the third Marcus book, The Lantern Bearers (1959).[a] Where the first two books and one later one were set in Roman Britain, The Lantern Bearers immediately follows the withdrawal of the Roman Empire, when the British people are threatened by remaining Germanic troops and by invaders.
Sutcliff was Carnegie runner-up again for Tristan and Iseult (1971), retelling the Arthurian story of the same name; for that work she won the annual Horn Book Award in the United States. The Mark of the Horse Lord won the inaugural Phoenix Award in 1985, named by the Children's Literature Association the best English-language children's book that did not win a major award when it was originally published twenty years earlier. The Shining Company won the same award in 2010. It is named for the mythical bird phoenix, which is reborn from its ashes, to suggest the book's rise from obscurity.
Sutcliff lived for many years in Walberton near Arundel, Sussex. In 1975, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to children's literature, and was promoted to be a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1992. She wrote incessantly throughout her life and was still writing on the morning of her death in 1992. Sutcliff never married and had no children.
- Blue Remembered Hills: A recollection (1983); Sutcliff's memoir of her childhood and young adulthood.
Eagle of the Ninth series
The series is linked by the Aquila family dolphin ring and listed here in fictional chronological order. (They were not written as a series by the author.)
- The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), illus. C. Walter Hodges ‡
- The Silver Branch (1957), illus. Charles Keeping ‡
- Frontier Wolf (1980)
- The Lantern Bearers (1959)
- Sword at Sunset (1963); "officially for adults"
- Dawn Wind (1961), illus. Charles Keeping
- Sword Song (1997, posthumous)
- The Shield Ring (1956), illus. C. Walter Hodges
‡ Three Legions (1980), or Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles (2010), is an omnibus edition of the original Eagle of the Ninth trilogy (The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers, 1954 to 1959).
Raymond Thompson credits Sutcliff with "some of the finest contemporary recreations of the Arthurian story" and names these seven works. The first two are also part of the Eagle of the Ninth series (above) that attempt to depict Arthur as an actual historical figure.
King Arthur Stories: Three books in one (1999), or The King Arthur Trilogy (2007), is an omnibus edition of the Arthurian Trilogy (1979 to 1981).
Other children's novels
- The Chronicles of Robin Hood (Oxford, 1950), illus. C. Walter Hodges — Sutcliff's first published book
- The Queen Elizabeth Story (1950) illus. C. Walter Hodges
- The Armourer's House (1951) illus. C. Walter Hodges
- Brother Dusty-Feet (1952), illus. by C. Walter Hodges
- Simon (1953), illus. Richard Kennedy, cover art by William Stobbs; set during the 17th-century English Civil War
- Outcast (1955), illus. Richard Kennedy
- Warrior Scarlet (1958), illus. Charles Keeping
- Knight's Fee (1960), illus. Charles Keeping
- Bridge Builders (1960), illus. Douglas Relf, about the building of Hadrian's Wall. Originally published as a short story in Another Six (Another 6): Stories by Richard Armstrong, William Mayne, Noel Streatfeild, Patricia Lynch, A. Philippa Pearce, Rosemary Sutcliff. UK: Blackwell, 1959.
- Beowulf: Dragonslayer (1961) illus. Charles Keeping; retells the Beowulf story
- The Hound of Ulster (1963), illus. Victor Ambrus; retells the story of Cúchulainn
- The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965), illus. Charles Keeping
- The Chief's Daughter (1967), illus. Victor Ambrus
- The High Deeds of Finn MacCool (1967), illus. Michael Charleton
- A Circlet of Oak Leaves (1968), illus. Victor Ambrus
- The Witch's Brat (1970), illus. Richard Lebenson
- The Truce of the Games (1971), illus. Victor Ambrus
- Heather, Oak, and Olive (1972), illus. Victor Ambrus; a collection of three dramatic stories: "The Chief's Daughter", "A Circlet of Oak Leaves", and "A Crown of Wild Olive" (originally published as "The Truce of the Games")
- The Capricorn Bracelet (1973), illus. Charles Keeping (later, Richard Cuffari); six stories, linked by a Roman armilla (military decoration), that originated as radio scripts[b]
- The Changeling (1974), illus. Victor Ambrus
- We Lived in Drumfyvie (1975), by Sutcliff and Margaret Lyford-Pike. "The authors combine their talents to recreate 700 years in the life of an imaginary Scottish burgh. The folk of Drumfyvie tell their own stories. "
- Blood Feud (1976), illus. Charles Keeping. Adapted as a TV movie in 1990, titled Sea Dragon.
- Sun Horse, Moon Horse (1977), illus. Shirley Felts
- Shifting Sands (1977), illus. Laslzo Acs
- Song for a Dark Queen (1978); retells the story of Queen Boudica
- Eagle's Egg (1981), illus. Victor Ambrus
- Bonnie Dundee (1983), the story of John Graham, 1st Viscount of Dundee, and the Jacobite rising of 1689
- Flame-coloured Taffeta (1986), illus. Rachel Birkett
- The Roundabout Horse (1986) illus. Alan Marks
- A Little Dog Like You (1987) illus. Jane Johnson
- The Best of Rosemary Sutcliff (1987), illus. Charles Keeping — omnibus edition of Warrior Scarlet, The Mark of the Horse Lord, and Knight's Fee (1958–1965)
- The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup (1993, posthumous), illus. by Emma Chichester Clark; also serialised in Cricket
- Black Ships Before Troy (1993, posth.), illus. Alan Lee; retells the Iliad story; also serialised in Cricket
- Chess-dream in a Garden (1993, posth.), illus. Ralph Thompson A fantasy for children inspired by the Lewis Chessmen.
- The Wanderings of Odysseus (1995, posth.), illus. Alan Lee; retells the Odyssey story
Novels for adults
Plays and screenplays
- The New Laird. Radio play (BBC Schools Radio series Stories from Scottish History). Broadcast 7 May 1966.
- Ghost Story. Screenplay with Stephen Weeks and Philip Norman, 1975.
- Mary Bedell. Stage play. Produced London, 1986.
- The Eagle of the Ninth. Stage play with Mary Rensten.
- History is People. A paper distributed at a conference on Children's Literature in Education, Exeter, England, 1971. Reprinted in Children and Literature: Views and Reviews, edited by Virginia Haviland, pp. 305–312 Scott, Foresman 1973, pp. 305–312
- "Combined Ops." Junior Bookshelf 24 (July 1960):121-27. Reprinted in Egoff, Only Connect: Readings on children's literature, 1st ed., pp. 244–48; 2d ed., pp. 284–88. Describes the process of writing Eagle of the Ninth and The Lantern Bearers.
In 1966 Sutcliff made a small donation to the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. (In this she responded to Lena Grummond's international call for original materials to establish the Collection.) The Sutcliff Papers include a manuscript and two typescripts for the radio play The New Laird. That programme was taped 4 April 1966 and broadcast from Edinburgh on 17 May 1966 as part of the Stories from Scottish History series (BBC Radio Scotland). The collection also includes a small red composition book of research notes for The Lantern Bearers and for two unpublished works, The Amber Dolphin and The Red Dragon.
Works about Sutcliff
- Margaret Meek, Rosemary Sutcliff, New York, Henry Z. Walck, (1962), a brief biographical monograph and critical study.
- John Rowe Townsend, "Rosemary Sutcliff", a critical essay in A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children, London, Longman, 1971, pp. 193–99. Reissued as A Sounding of Storytellers (1979).
- Barbara L. Talcroft, Death of the Corn King: King and Goddess in Rosemary Sutcliff's Historical Novels for Young Adults, Metuchen, New Jersey and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1995.
- Miriam Youngerman Miller, "The Rhythm of a Tongue: Literary Dialect in Rosemary Sutcliff's Novels of the Middle Ages for Children", Children's Literature Association Quarterly 19:1, Spring 1994, pp. 25–31.
- Hilary Wright, Shadows on the Downs: Some Influences of Rudyard Kipling on Rosemary Sutcliff. Children's Literature in Education 12, No. 2:90-102 (Summer 1981)
- The Search for Selfhood: The Historical Novels of Rosemary Sutcliff. TLS : Essays and Reviews from the Times Literary Supplement, 17 June 1965, p. 498. Reprinted in Only Connect: Readings on children's literature, ed. Sheila Egoff et al. Toronto New York: Oxford University Press (Canadian Branch), 1969, pp. 249–255.
- Abby Mims, Rosemary Sutcliff in British Writers: Supplement 16. Ed. Jay Parini. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2010. Web: Gale Literature Resource Center.
The biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award conferred by the International Board on Books for Young People is the highest recognition available to a writer or illustrator of children's books. Sutcliff was one of three runners-up for the writing award in 1974 (and the British nominee in 1968 as well).
She won several awards for particular works.
Besides winning the 1959 Carnegie Medal, Sutcliff was a commended runner-up five times.[a]Alan Lee, who illustrated Sutcliff's posthumously published retellings of The Iliad and The Odyssey, won the companion Kate Greenaway Medal for the former, Black Ships Before Troy (1993).
- ^ abSince 1995 there are usually eight books on the Carnegie shortlist. According to CCSU some runners up through 2002 were Commended (from 1954) or Highly Commended (from 1966). There were about 160 commendations of both kinds in 49 years including six each for 1954, 1956, and 1957; three each for 1958 and 1971 (none highly commended).
- ^The Capricorn Bracelet (1973) is a collection of six inter-connected short stories, following several generations of Roman soldiers serving at Hadrian's Wall from the 1st to the 4th centuries. In the author's note Sutcliff says that they began as scripts about Roman Scotland, written for BBC Radio Scotland as part of a series called Stories from Scottish History. She gives no dates; the series ran from 1947 to 1972.
- ^Thomas Keith was a young Scottish soldier in the 78th Highlanders regiment, captured in Egypt by Turkish forces during the Alexandria expedition of 1807. He converted to Islam, took the name Ibrahim Aga, and became governor of Medina in 1815. (See The Adventures of Thomas Keith in Ch.12 of James Grant's 'The Scottish Soldiers of Fortune, pub. 1889)
- Official website – books, TV scripts, films, TV versions and life; by her literary executor Anthony Lawton
- Works by or about Rosemary Sutcliff in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Rosemary Sutcliff at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Rosemary Sutcliff at Library of Congress Authorities, with 88 catalogue records
- Rosemary Sutcliff on IMDb
- "Rosemary Sutcliff: An Appreciation" by Sandra Garside-Neville, first published in Solander (Journal of the Historical Novel Society), No. 8, pp. 2–6, December 2000
- "Of the Minstrel Kind" by Margaret Meek, a tribute to Rosemary Sutcliff at seventy published in Books for Keeps No. 64, September 1990
- "Rosemary Sutcliff 1920–1992" at HistoricalNovels.info
- Sutcliff's Roman Britain novels reviewed by Eric Eller at The Green Man Review – provides synopses and discusses the series in the context of place and chronological setting
- Interview with Sutcliff on the Arthurian novel Sword at Sunset by Raymond H. Thompson, 1986], The Camelot Project, Robbins Library Digital Projects, University of Rochester
- "Obituary: Rosemary Sutcliff", Julia Eccleshare, The Independent, 27 July 1992
Works by Rosemary Sutcliff
|Eagle of the Ninth|
“And then suddenly the wolf was there. With a crashing of twigs and small branches it sprang into the open, then, seeing the hunters all about it, checked almost in mid spring, swinging its head from side to side, with laid-back ears and wrinkled muzzle: a great, brindled dog wolf, menace in every raised hackle.”
(From Warrior Scarlet)
Rosemary Sutcliff’s splendid stories take place in Britain’s distant past. Shining Roman spears. Cloth woven red for warrior valor. A broken bit of barley cake on a hearth whose ashes grow cold. The last signal fire against the darkness of a massing enemy.
This author makes her characters—-whether queens and kings, shepherds, or slaves—-as familiar to her readers as their own friends. To read one of her historical novels for young people is to enter another age, as gripping as the finest fantasy books. But unlike the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, these worlds truly existed. How did Rosemary Sutcliff learn to pattern her words and tell her stories in such a gripping way?
As with many successful children’s writers, her talent arose from a love of books. Born in England in 1920, she might have been raised by nannies and governesses and eventually sent off to school to follow a perfectly ordinary life.
But Rosemary suffered terribly from juvenile arthritis. Her mother decided to school her at home. Part of her mother’s devoted care included reading aloud. Rosemary was in hospital, as they say in Britain, very frequently, and her mother read to her hour after hour. These tremendous stories—-Rudyard Kipling, tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood and many more—-flowed into her mind day after day. In a hospital library she found a book that was to be her childhood treasure. Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, told of a young Canadian girl who follows her dream of becoming a published writer. And so a seed was sown.
Yet her childhood was more than just sheltered. It was almost horrifically isolated. She was in frequent pain, with no friends her own age, and her father’s military job moved them around from town to town. Rosemary finished up her regular education, such as it was, by age 14. She promptly took an entrance exam for an art school and got in.
Her teachers told her she would be wonderful at painting miniatures, and she did do this for a while with some success. But at last the writing fever hit her in earnest. She wrote one story and had it rejected, but the publisher asked her to write another on a topic of their choosing. She much more enjoyed writing a biography of Queen Elizabeth I for children, her second assignment, but she realized even as she was writing them that these early books were a kind of apprenticeship.
In 1954, her first book of the Roman trilogy was published. Eagle of the Ninth and its sequels would have been notable if only because no writer for young people had ever evoked this dark period of Britain’s past with such reality. But the trilogy (Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers) did much more that. Rosemary’s storytelling style was so strong that the clashes between the warriors and cultures resonated through the pages of the books, gripping the readers long after the last chapters were finished.
Rosemary Sutcliff went on to write more than 50 books before her death in 1992. She was most at home telling stories about Britain’s early periods—-when the Little Dark People of the Isle clashed with the invading Celts or the advent and departure of the Roman legions.
The Romans first came in 55 BC, and by 407 AD the last legion had been withdrawn. But the warriors left behind remembered the Roman ways and, as told by Rosemary, put them to good advantage in the wars against the invading Saxons. She looked carefully for the fire behind the smoke of legend and came up with a realistic British hero who just might have become the once and future king of legend--Arthur.
Readers who have not tried her books would be well to begin with either Eagle of the Ninth or Warrior Scarlet.
Eagle follows an embittered Roman soldier who travels to Britain’s hinterlands to seek out his father’s lost legion. In the latter book, a young Celtic boy with a maimed arm must either prove his ability to defend his tribe in single combat with a wolf or be abandoned by his people. Both stories continue in their ways from generation to generation through other books.
An excellent example of the meaning of honor and kingship in a tribal society can be found in The Horse Lord. Here a gladiator newly-freed from slavery drifts into the role of a lifetime when his resemblance to a missing heir puts him back in the action.
In a 1986 interview with Raymond H. Thompson, Rosemary Sutcliff described herself as a person who belonged to the minstrelsy, getting the history as right as she could but always putting the storytelling first. The old Anglo-Saxons had a peculiar expression: to unlock one’s word-hoard. Rosemary Sutcliff’s treasures of words are available for everyone, “from nine to ninety,” as she was fond saying, at the local library.
Sources for this article:
“Rosemary Sutcliff,” Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2007. Entry updated 09/05/2003
“Rosemary Sutcliff,” St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd ed. St. James Press, 1999
(Both of the above come from the database, Biography Resource Center. They contain more complete biographical notes, including full lists of her publications and many awards.)
Rosemary Sutcliff: An Appreciation by Sandra Garside-Neville.
Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff by Raymond H. Thompson.
Note: Rosemary Sutcliff also wrote a poignant biography of her early years, The Blue Remembered Hills.
Photo Credit: RosemarySutcliff.com