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The Roman Novels by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920‒92) wrote three of her four great historical novels for children set during the last years of the Roman occupation of Britain – The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers (winner of the Carnegie Medal) – between 1954 and 1959, and the fourth, Frontier Wolf, which comes third in the chronological story, in 1980. The four books are only loosely interconnected, but together they give a vivid picture of the ebbing away of imperial power from Britain as Rome’s values were undermined and her defences gradually weakened by Saxon invasions.

Their author was the only child of a naval family, and much of her early life was spent among the sights and sounds of the dockyards, which filled her imagination and which would later appear in her children’s books. When she was very young she developed Still’s Disease, a form of juvenile arthritis which interrupted her education (she didn’t learn to read until she was 9) and left her permanently disabled, an experience she described in her memoir Blue Remembered Hills (1983), reissued in 2008 as the first of the Slightly Foxed Editions. But facing her situation with extraordinary courage, she became a successful painter of miniatures before finding her true vocation in writing.

Her first two novels for children, The Chronicles of Robin Hood and The Queen Elizabeth Story, were published in 1950, and between then and her death in 1992 she wrote an array of novels which bring the early history of the British Isles vibrantly alive, including those which continue the story of Britain after the last of the Legions have departed: Dawn Wind (1961), Sword Song (1997) and The Shield Ring (1956). Though most of her books were written primarily for children, the flesh-and-blood reality of her characters, her convincing plots and her brilliant reimagining of everyday life in a remote and mysterious Britain have always attracted adult readers too. Slightly Foxed is now reissuing all four of the Roman novels, with their original illustrations, in a limited, numbered edition.

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