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Rosemary Sutcliff is one of Britain’s most distinguished children’s writers, with over forty historical novels to her name. Blue Remembered Hills is the vivid and touching memoir of her own childhood.
Rosemary Sutcliff was born in 1920, the only child of a naval father and a pretty, manic-depressive mother with bags of charm and a wild imagination. As a child Rosemary suffered from the juvenile arthritis known as Still’s Disease, which burned its way through her, leaving her permanently disabled, yet Blue Remembered Hills is the very opposite of a misery memoir. It is a record of the growing up and making of a writer, and it is full of humour, affection, joy in people and the natural world, and the kind of deep understanding that can come out of hard experiences.
In some ways, hers was an enchanted childhood, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards, which would later feed into her books. When her father retired from the sea the family moved to Torrington in North Devon, and at 14 Rosemary went to Bideford Art School, becoming a skilled miniaturist. In time, though, feeling cramped by the small canvas of her paintings, isolated in the country and wounded in love, she turned to writing. In doing so, she brought the past vividly to life for generations of children, and herself found fulfilment and success.
The writer Rosemary Sutcliff (1920–92) was the only child of a naval father – a dear, straightforward man who ‘you could never for a moment have mistaken for anything but a sailor’ – and a pretty, manic-depressive mother with bags of charm and a wild imagination, with whom Rosemary had an intensely close and intensely difficult relationship – but as she observes:
‘Very few of the worthwhile things in this world are all that easy.’
Her childhood memoir Blue Remembered Hills was first published in 1983 and the cover of that edition shows its author sitting in a wheelchair in a garden, looking straight out. It is in some ways a startling picture for a book jacket, for her body, hands and arms are twisted by the juvenile arthritis, known as Still’s Disease, that burned its way through her as a child, leaving her permanently disabled. But what to me is most arresting about the photograph is her direct and humorous gaze. It sums up the spirit of Blue Remembered Hills which, despite the inevitable pain it often records, is the very opposite of a misery memoir.
Although she spent long periods in hospital, Rosemary’s was in some ways an enchanted childhood, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards in Malta, Chatham and Sheerness, ‘the smell of pitch and hot metal, wood and white paint, salt water and rope and oily smoke’, which would later provide the background for her early novel The Armourer’s House. Especially enchanting to this imaginative child were the times when she and her father would sit down together to study the albums of his travels, their brown hessian covers ‘folded back with a heart-leap of expectancy’ to reveal fading photographs – ‘of Pompeii, with the wheel ruts of chariots deeply shadowed by the afternoon sun on a paved street . . . the Lyon Gate at Mycenae in the days when you could pick up shards of Mycenaean pottery as easily as anemones from the rough grass’. The writer in her was storing it all up, just as she was storing up the feeling of the marsh country round Sheerness, and of the South Downs, where she and her parents sometimes went to visit her grim Aunt Lucy.
When her father retired from the sea the family settled near Torrington in North Devon. In Blue Remembered Hills Rosemary describes the intense, almost mystical delight she took in that remote and beautiful countryside on the edge of Dartmoor – the deep lanes edged with meadowsweet, the sounds of the curlews coming in from the coast, the owls that ‘perched on the chimney to warm their feet, and made eerie noises down to us’. At the age of 14 she enrolled at Bideford Art School and when she left became a skilled miniature painter, whose work was exhibited at the Royal Academy. It was during her late twenties, just after the war and the pain of a love affair that came to nothing, that she began to express her passion for history in writing. Her first book for children, The Queen Elizabeth Story – ‘written out of heartache, but also out of something set free within myself ’ – was published by the Oxford University Press in 1950, and during the following three decades she produced most of the wonderful books that have brought the past alive for generations of children – The Eagle of the Ninth and her other stories of Roman Britain; the Arthurian novels beginning with Sword at Sunset; Dawn Wind, Frontier Wolf and many, many more.
Blue Remembered Hills is a masterpiece of another kind, but it shares the same qualities of honesty, humour, affection, joy in people and the natural world, and the kind of deep understanding that can come out of some very hard experiences. One feels braver somehow, more alive, more philosophical for reading it. It is a record of the growing up and making of a writer, and I would recommend it to any apprentice author as an example of what really good writing is.
‘Really excellent . . .’
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