After dragging it out as long as I could, I have finally finished reading Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff. Sutcliff’s memoir of her childhood and early adulthood is delightfully-written but cruelly slim. I rationed myself, reading only little bits at a time, trying to savour the treat as long as possible.
I should admit now that I’ve never read any of Sutcliff’s historical novels, which is bizarre. I am not sure how we never crossed paths during my historical fiction-crazed childhood but we did not and so this was my first introduction to her. I can’t imagine a better one.
The danger of childhood memoirs is always that they might descend into that treacly swamp of sentimentality that can only leave the reader feeling queasy and the author, one hopes, embarrassed. This is decidedly not one of those memoirs. Sutcliff is affectionate in her remembrances but never boringly nostalgic for days gone by or pitying for the circumstances she faced. She has a marvellous sense of humour and wonderful eye for detailing, making the reader feel part of the episodes she shares with us.
Born in 1920, Sutcliff was the daughter of a naval lieutenant and, with the exception of long hospital visits, spent much of her childhood surrounded by other naval families, both in Malta and the UK. She developed Still’s Disease (a crippling and painful form of juvenile arthritis) as a toddler, and though her disability and the pain made her life different from most children’s, she does not dwell on these differences. As a child, she was determined to live as normally as possible, when not in hospitals or nursing homes.
While young Rosemary casually dismissed her disabilities, the situation was more difficult for her parents, especially her mother who had to care for an extremely sick daughter alone while her husband was at sea. Sutcliff generally speaks of her mother with fondness and admiration, but there are mentions of tensions between them that escalated as Sutcliff aged. The only thing that marred this book for me was my feeling that Sutcliff wasn’t quite as fair to her mother as she might have been. Especially since, from all she shares of herself, Sutcliff can’t have been an easy child to parent! Aside from the unimaginable stress her illness must have had on her parents, she seems to have been frustratingly willful when healthy. She remained determined not to learn how to read for an extraordinarily long time, more than content to listen to the stories her mother told her. This gap in her education bothered her not at all but was deeply alarming to her parents:
…I still had my inability to read. My father now joined the battle, and had small serious talks with me.
‘When you can read to yourself, old girl, you will find a whole new world opening up to you.’
‘Yes, Daddy,’ said I. Polite but unconvinced.
He resorted to bribery. I longed to model things. He bought me a box of ‘Barbola’ modelling clay with all its accompanying paraphernalia, and promised me I should have it when I could read.
‘You can’t go on like this for ever!’ he said.
‘No, Daddy,’ I agreed. I had every intention of going on like it for ever.
‘Don’t say “No, Daddy”.’
Obviously, she eventually learned to read. She did so while attending Miss Beck’s Academy, where she had gone despite having “no real desire to learn to read, but the dignity of schoolgirlhood appealed to me strongly.” Miss Beck and her old-fashioned academy was one of my favourite parts of the book and a wonderful glimpse into the peculiar middle-class engine of the empire, since all her students were children of naval or military officers and often remained in that world themselves:
Christmas cards from old boys in big ships of the China Station and dusty cantonments on the plains of India; from fishery protection gunboats tossing in the North Sea; from Camberley and Greenwich and the Persian Gulf. Christmas cards from old girls in married quarters and rooms and small rented houses up and down the world, usually enclosing letters and snapshots and messages of love from small sons and daughters whom Miss Beck had never seen. Miss Beck’s old pupils seldom forgot her, and woe betide any of them who did. ‘I have not heard from Elaine this year. Of course her mother was always unsatisfactory, and they allowed her to use face powder much too young. I shall write to her in the New Year.’ Or, ‘I must say, I did not think Peter would have forgotten me so soon. He was a very affectionate little boy. I suppose getting his regiment so young has gone to his head.’
(Simon, wise man that he is, seems to have been equally taken with Miss Beck and her school when he read this.)
The book follows Sutcliff from her childhood into her twenties, when she worked as an artist before becoming a writer. This period includes a detailed account of her first painful love affair with a dashing young officer who, though delighted with Rosemary as a platonic soul mate, had no idea of marrying her. Not an easy experience for her to live through but an interesting and valuable one that helped her to grow up and helped her along her way to becoming a writer.
I’m not quite sure what I expected going into this but this exceeded my expectations in every way. Sutcliff writes so warmly and affectionately of the people that formed her that you can’t help but feel you have missed out by not having known them yourself and her enthusiasm for life and new experiences is wonderful to behold. A charming book and one that, delightfully, is readily available from Slightly Foxed, who have an unerring talent for picking perfect books.