Our book today is Blue Remembered Hills, Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1983 childhood memoir about growing up in England shortly before and during World War II, and even that brief description raises two possible strikes against it in the minds of many readers. First strike, it’s by a “children’s author” and so might be strident or unpleasantly didactic. Second strike, it’s a childhood memoir, and so might be prey to saccharine myth-making.
These apprehensions increase when the reader learns that in childhood Sutcliffe was diagnosed with a rare form of juvenile arthritis – one immediately fears the appearance (let alone repeated use) of the word ‘plucky.’
But readers should cast aside such worries – and readers who are actually familiar with Sutcliff’s books won’t have worried in the first place. This is a flat-out fantastic author who never put pen to paper without rigorously exercising the result into something eminently worth reading. Her “children’s” books are for any reader childlike enough to favor clear, strong prose, well-drawn characters, and rousing, memorable plots. And Blue Remembered Hills is nothing less than enchanting.
Sutcliff’s physical affliction, and the fact her father, a life-long naval man, was usually away from home, threw her into great dependence on her mother, by far the most remarkable character in this book. She’s a kind, strong-willed woman, and she and her daughter are often at loggerheads in the book (and there are consequences of outright, unreasonable defiance: this was back when parents were still allowed to slap their children if their children staged screaming, stomping, crying, manipulative fake-hysterics in public). And yet the book is over-brimming with daughterly affection – Mrs. Sutcliff could scarcely have dreamt of a more touching partial biography, even once she knew she had a writer for a daughter.
It being a childhood memoir and thus intimately concerned with loss, Blue Remembered Hills has quite a few other touching parts, and all of them are rendered with the same lyrical prose line and lack of sanctimony that characterizes her novels. One story about a stint in convalescent care seems to float and ramble – until the final two-tap punch is expertly delivered:
As before, there was a spell in the nursing-home for me, to shut off one chapter from the next, or maybe to make a kind of bridge between them. It was a big nursing-home in Hampstead. I don’t remember a thing about the treatment I underwent there; I only know that I was there for six weeks, and that during that time two things happened. One day, one of the nurses, in their free time and bless their kind young hearts, took me to see Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House; and one night there were strange noises and much coming and going in the eight-bed ward, and I was scared and could not sleep, and the woman in the next bed told me stories and talked to me softly all night long, so that I should not know that at the far end of the ward an older woman was dying and dying hard.
And even that most shopworn of childhood traumas, the death of a beloved pet, is rescued by dint of the author’s sheer craft. Here it isn’t the final coda but instead a great little juxtaposition, one perfect little ‘childlike’ line inserted quietly amidst all the practical, physical (and lovely) description:
The boy from a nearby farm who occasionally did some gardening for us, our veteran of the leeks and white alyssum having long since retired, dug him a grave alongside [earlier dog] Don’s, just outside the gate into the wood, and we put his collar on, that he might not run stray and nameless among the stars, and wrapped him in his blanket, like Sir John Moore, and put his beloved blue rubber ball in with him. And when the boy had shovelled back the earth and gone away, and we were left standing over the new grave, my mother read bits of the Burial Service over him, and pushed little wild daffodil bulbs from the bank into the soft earth, ready for the spring. It was Hallowe’en, with a cold grey mist dripping from among the trees. And all the while we both cried with quite desolation, the tears trickling down our noses, for Mike who had come to us at six weeks old and been a part of us ever since.
The reader gets the impression that the Sutcliffs were a family fond of a nicely-done anecdote or quip, and all of them are here, carefully preserved, in Blue Remembered Hills, which covers the years from the author’s childhood until the start of her publishing career. That start comes when an early manuscript is bought (for the princely sum of 50 pounds), and there’s much family pride on the occasion, with a perfect quip to hint at the greater fame to come:
My father made no attempt to be humble at all. If he had not been such a quiet man, I would have said that he crowed.
In old age, he invented a joke. ‘Once, Rosemary Sutcliff used to be my daughter; but I’m Rosemary Sutcliff’s father now.’
Several of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels have recently been given spiffy re-issues in the United States, and her ‘profile’ is about to get an added boost, since Eagle of the Ninth is about to be released as a big-budget movie staring that prime slab of beef, Channing Tatum. Even given the extra attention, it’s unlikely Blue Remembered Hills will be re-issued, but it’s well worth reading just the same. It will touch your heart, and as Rosemary Sutcliff herself would have said, there’s nothing wrong with that, from time to time.