Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Reviewed by Harriet

Who remembers reading The Eagle of the Ninth? First published in 1954, when Sutcliff was 34, it is set in Roman Britain and tells the story of young Marcus who is on a quest to find his father, who has vanished together with his entire Legion. What makes the book outstanding, in addition to the exciting story which has kept young people entertained and informed for seventy years, is the fact that its hero is disabled: a battle wound has left him with a lame leg. I did not know until I read Blue Remembered Hills, Rosemary Sutcliff’s enchanting childhood memoir, that she herself was disabled, a lifelong wheelchair user, having been affected by juvenile arthritis as a very young child. You might think this would have made for a sad childhood but you’d be quite wrong. There’s an amazing amount of joy for this young girl, despite endless hospital visits and painful, ineffective treatments.

Born into a comfortably-off family of doctors (mother’s side) and sailors (father’s side), Rosemary moved around a good deal in her childhood. Born in Surrey, she spent her earliest years in Dorset, and it was here that she contracted the form of juvenile arthritis known as Still’s disease, ‘a form of acute arthritis … bringing with it waves of acute pain and fever with joint inflammation, that came and went with periods of remission in between for an indefinite number of years, and eventually, if it did not kill one first, burned itself out, leaving havoc behind it. ‘ There was no known cure, and she would undergo many long weeks in hospital, and many attempts to reduce the extreme pain she often suffered. But though these naturally figure in the account of her childhood, they are overwhelmingly outweighed by the happy memories, often connected with a sensitive appreciation of the outside world.

She was only three when the family relocated to Malta, a place of colourful memories that stayed with her all her life:

To this day the name ‘Malta’ means bells to me. Bells ringing, not as the church bells ring in this country, but clashing all together, tossing and falling and fountaining above the roof-tops and through the narrow streets, And I see the blue of a night sky through a mosquito net; and somehow superimposed on that, the top of an orange-tree triumphant with flaming golden fruit peering at me over the broken coping of a sunlit wall.

This description, and many other like it, shows her distinct ability to evoke the picture of a place, so it’s not surprising to learn that she took up art as her first career. Her condition made for an isolated childhood, largely educated at home by her mother, which was not a great success:

Under the heading of General Knowledge, I think I would have done quite well in a TV quiz. I knew the meaning of the three white bands round a sailor’s collar, I knew the proportions of an iceberg above and below water, and the name of Apollo’s mother. From a lovely book about a little boy going on a voyage round the world with his toys … I had accumulated quite a lot of geography. From Flower Fairies of the Seasons I had gathered nearly as much botany as I have now; and I seldom find myself at a loss where flowers and trees are concerned. I had a smattering of child’s-version history from Our Island Story, in which Queen Boadicea rebelled against the Romans because they had beaten her and been rude to her daughters.

Unfortunately, though, even the simplest sums were a mystery to her and she totally failed to learn to read. Her mother had tried, and had even briefly employed a teacher, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, at the age of nine, with the aid of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, she finally discovered for herself  ‘what the mystery was all about’, and devoured books of all sorts from then on. There were eventually a couple of schools – the delightfully old fashioned Mrs Beck’s Academy and later the much more conventional St George’s School, where her lack of a proper early education meant she didn’t thrive. At fourteen, she left school and, art having been her best subject, she went to Bideford Art School, and acquired enough skill to make a living as an artist and illustrator. But as she grew up, she was mostly captive at home, with a mother who despite her many fine qualities was clearly bipolar, and a father loving but often absent. ‘I was horribly and increasingly lonely’. 

This changed when she was seventeen and fell in love with a cousin, who took her for lovely country drives and generally made her a much happier person. But then war broke and Edward, a lieutenant in the Navy, had to do his bit. By the end of the war he was engaged to a girl he’d met in South Africa. By this time, though, Rosemary had got the itch to write:

It was a delight, a way of escape, and in early years it had the added attraction of being a forbidden delight, a way of escape that must be kept secret. My family knew that I could paint, but — who shall blame them, remembering my school record — they had no faith whatever in my ability to write. 

Though her early stories were very juvenile efforts, later ones were more successful. She had started including material inspired by the Celtic and Saxon legends her mother had loved to read to her, and when she sent a collection of them to Oxford University Press, they told her they would not publish them but asked instead for a book about Robin Hood, which became her first ever publication. From then on there was no stopping her and between then and her death at the relatively early age of 63 she had published 36 novels for young people, five adult novels and five non-fiction books. 

Rosemary’s Wikipedia entry ends ‘Sutcliff never married and had no children’. This is true, but it doesn’t take account of her relationship with  Rupert, who she met after the war. This was a real love affair, though Rosemary knew from the start that Rupert could never be tied to one woman. Accepting this in theory, she was still devastated when he told he had got engaged. ‘She and I must meet, and become friends’ he said, but though they did meet, this was never going to happen and eventually she wrote to Rupert saying his idyll of a threefold relationship ‘could not be done. At least by me’.  But, being Rosemary, she was able to look back with equanimity, and though family and friends were sorry for her loss:

Because of what had happened between Rupert and me, I was a fuller and richer person than I would otherwise have been. I knew that if a pantomime fairy in a gauze ballet skirt had appeared, and offered, with one wave of her tinsel wand, to wipe out the last two years, and with them the grey ache of loss that they had left behind, I would not for one moment have considered accepting her offer. Because of those two years, something in me which, without them, would probably have remained green and unawakened, had had a chance to flower and fruit and ripen. Because of those two years I was going, in some odd way, to be able to write as I would not otherwise have been able to do.

This is not quite the last Handheld Press book – there are a few still to come before this wonderful small publishing company closes its doors later this year. They will be sorely missed. So go and buy this one and treasure it.

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny.

Rosemary Sutcliff, Blue Remembered Hills: A Recollection  (Handheld Press, 2024). 978-1912766802, 252pp., paperback original.

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1 comment

  1. I really loved this book when Slightly Foxed reprinted it a few years ago. Despite all she went through, it has such joy in it.

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