A charming childhood photo of the young Rosemary Sutcliff on the cover of her autobiography Blue Remembered Hills (1983)
Today would have been the 100th Birthday of writer Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992)
Readers and fellow gamers shared their Rosemary Sutcliff stories in the comments on my recent blog post, that also received a welcome visit and comment from her godson and literary executor Anthony Lawton.
Today on her birthday I give her – an old lead cow or two. Why?
The reason will become clear if I share two short quotes from the early childhood chapters of her autobiography, for the period just after WW1. Her father was a naval officer. Her older sister Penelope died as a baby in the Spanish Flu pandemic.
“A few more years, and I was born. My father was at the Admiralty at the time, and commuting daily between Whitehall and East Chandon, which is how just before Christmas 1920 I came to be born in Surrey.”
A posting in Malta is memorably described and then her return to Britain. Writing in her 1983 autobiography, Sutcliff recalls the pleasure of lead toy figures almost 60 years ago :
“For a short while, weeks or months, ‘Home’ was a cottage we rented near Sevenoaks, and my father was again at the Admiralty and coming back from London each evening.”
“One evening he bought me the nucleus of what was to become a well stocked toy farm: two cows, one black-and-white lying down, one brown-and-white standing up, and a hen sitting on a nest full of yellow chicks. They were stout heavy little creatures of painted lead. Oh, the satisfying weight and density of the farm animals and toy soldiers of my youth, compared with the flimsy plastic variety with which the modern child has to be content, finely modelled but so light that they blow over if you breathe in their direction.”
“I have always been sorry for children born more than two hundred years ago, and therefore denied the pleasure of popping fuschia buds, and for children born too late to enjoy, except as family treasures and collector’s pieces, the feel of strength and balance and solidity of lead cows or Grenadiers that were a delight to the hand as well as the eye.”
“And then when I was five we went to Sheerness Dockyard.” (C. 1925)
Rosemary Sutcliff – an unexpected patron of the old lead toy soldier!
As she grew up, she had an older family friend, Colonel Crookenden, colonel of the Senior Officers School at Sheerness, who:
“His hobby was making lead soldiers, and I soon had a sizeable private army, complete with despatch riders on motor-cycles and a stretcher party, to range alongside my toy farm on its green baize-covered board.”
The Capricorn Bracelet (1973)
I mentioned that I had kept aside a Sutcliff or two to read for her birthday week, although I realise from the bibliography how few of her books I have read.
One is The Capricorn Bracelet, a series of short stories spaced over three centuries and many generations of the same family from AD 61 to AD 383. The Capricorn bracelet is a linking literary motif, a Roman military Distinguished Conduct bracelet that travels down through members of the family.
Originally written by Sutcliff as some short stories for Radio Scotland, these scripts were redeveloped into short stories. Each short story or chapter feels like you have read a mini Eagle of The Ninth.
The Dacian Cavalry Fire Ride pictured on the front cover from chapter 3 – Outpost Fortress AD 150
The chapter headings give an idea of the time spanned, the narrator or main character varying from legionaries and cavalrymen, officers and men through to British tribesmen:
- Death of a City AD 61
- Rome Builds a Wall AD 123
- Outpost Fortress AD 150
- Traprain Law AD 196
- Frontier Post AD 280
- The Eagles Fly South AD 383
and a handy timeline background chapter for these stories too.
This New York Times review of the book suggested it was “not Sutcliff at her best” which I certainly do not agree with.
Happy Birthday Rosemary Sutcliff!
Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN, 14 December 2020
B.P.S. Blog Post Script
I photographed the repair process of mending the lead cows ‘ legs and will feature this on a future post.