Saturday, 13 March 2010

Fire Along the Frontier

Tonight 84-mile-long Hadrian’s Wall will be illuminated along its full extent from east to west. The first beacon will be lit at Segedunum (Wallsend) and the event will culminate in a procession in Carlisle, with street entertainment (the line of lights will reach Carlisle (or Luguvalium) at about 6.40pm. I wish I were close enough to see the Wall when it’s lit up – it’s going to be a reasonably clear evening, I think, and it should be spectacular.

I find it satisfying that it should be taking place on the day I started reading for my own personal challenge: (re)reading the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, one of my favourite authors as a child. In my teens I progressed to her adult books, Sword at Sunset feeding my fascination with King Arthur by turning him into a plausible historical character. But then she faded from my sight.

A couple of years ago, however, I read her memoir of her childhood, Blue Remembered Hills, which came as a beautifully bound limited edition from Slightly Foxed – it was the delight of the edition that attracted me as much as a loved author, I must admit.  But it’s so immensely readable that it reawakened my interest. She talks about beginning to write:
Almost from the beginning I felt cramped as a miniature painter and I think my first urge to break out into writing was the result of this. One can write as big as one needs; no canvas is too large to be unmanageable.
So I began to scribble, at first purely for the pleasure of scribbling, and without any idea of getting published. 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.
She had had a childhood racked by illness (she suffered from Still’s Disease), and the loneliness caused by disability and long periods in hospital seems to be one of the most fertile hothouses for the imagination (I can’t help but recall those pictures of the young Robert Louis Stevenson waking from fevered dreams, in my ghastly school reading book – how these things linger!), helped perhaps by a mother for whom reading was a natural habit. She lacked much formal education, and her family persuaded her that painting would offer a living; although he heart was never entirely in it, her training as a miniaturist may have encouraged the detail of daily life which is present in her novels, fleshing out a distant historical past so that it becomes real to the reader. She was intrigued, too, by continuity – how the landscape we see today has been inhabited by people going about their everyday lives, in an unbroken line. I am too, and she was undoubtedly one of the writers who made me so. In a comment on my last post, callmemadam says Sutcliff made her turn to history – she made me study Latin, albeit briefly, but long enough to accrue quite a bit of the history of Roman Britain (I was much better at placenames than at declension) and, as I’ve already mentioned, fuelled a lifelong obsession with the Arthurian legends.

Which leads me on to my “challenge” – which isn’t really one at all, since I’m embarking alone on a journey along the Roman roads of Britain, from Isca Dumnoniorum in the south, where Marcus Flavius Aquila arrives to relieve the garrison, then northwards to Hadrian’s Wall and into the wilds north of Antonine’s Wall, beyond the pale of the Roman Empire. It’s not a journey I’m going to rush, there is no finishing date, and I’m starting in the obvious place with probably her most famous book, The Eagle of the Ninth, and then following the route through four further linked novels, spanning a publishing history from 1954 to 1980 (remarkable in itself): The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind and Frontier Wolf.  Essentially an armchair journey, I shall take the opportunity, whenever it presents itself, to refamiliarise myself with history and landscape, visiting any sites I can, such as Trinomontium (Melrose), a pleasant morning drive from here, or the Wall itself, reporting here on both books and visits. Blue Remembered Hills will be close at hand throughout, and for those who are interested, I've added a link to the blog written by Sutcliff's godson Anthony Lawton here and on the sidebar. Once I've read these Roman novels, I shall move on to the Arthurian series. If anyone wants to read along, you are very welcome! If you are reading one of Sutcliff's books, or have blogged about them already, please leave a link to your post in the comments.


  1. How fascinating. I've visited Hadrian's Wall a couple of times, but only relatively briefly, and I'm sure taking a long walk along the route would be rewarding.

  2. I never read any Rosemary Sutcliff as a child and it's my loss I think. I actually own The Lantern Bearers so have added it to my pile for my historicals challenge. Should be interesting. It was amazing to see the wall lit up on TV!

  3. Hadrian's Wall always reminds me of holidays with my parents when I was a teenager.
    My mum had a passion for archaeology having done a couple of evening classes, and I recall hours spent tramping around Roman roads and forts (Housesteads and Vindolanda were favourites).Having grown up in Bedfordshire, where visits to Verulamium (the Roman town at St Albans) were frequent occurrences, it was interesting to see the sharp end of the Roman occupation of Britain.
    I read a lot of Rosemary Sutcliffe in those days (as an only child staying at B&B's there was very little else to do!) so it would be interesting to re read her properly.
    Where are you going to start with a readalong?

  4. Just re-read the post and realise that you said that you were starting with Eagle of the Ninth, a battered copy of which is on one of my shelves. Sorry , should have been paying more attention!

  5. I had a Rosemary Sutcliff 'moment' last year, reading the Roman novels again and spending a week in Corbridge 'doing' the Wall. It was listening to The Eagle of the Ninth on Children's Hour on the radio that made me fall headlong in love with the Romans. Lindsey Davis, of Falco fame, apparently also began her love affair with Rome via Marcus Aquila.
    And Silchester, where Marcus convalesces, is not far from us so we spent a fabulous day there last spring. Sunshine, bluebells, the Roman walled town and amphitheatre - and a lovely pub lunch too!
    (I believe there's a film of Eagle of the Ninth due out this year!)

  6. Martin, surely Hannah Scarlett must need to investigate a cold case on Hadrian's Wall - part of it is Cumbrian, after all?

    Cath, wasn't it lovely! Glad you are going to read The Lantern Bearers.

    LizF, those sites are wonderful, aren't they? I keep meaning to make time to explore Verulanium, which I remember from Latin lessons. I've started, as you gathered, with Eagle of the Ninth.

    Nicola, I love the country around Corbridge.I didn't know that that Lindsay Davis had been a Sutcliff reader - Falco is great fun. I've never been to Silchester - some day...

  7. A cold case at Hadrian's Wall? It could happen, Geranium Cat, it really could!

  8. I was just looking at my daughter and wondering if she was old enough to start Laura ingalls Wilder, one of my favourite childhood authors, so your post hit home,as I then thought maybe I'd like to reread them too! Then there is Enid Blyton, whose Jack and Lucy-Ann, Philip and Dinah linger on in my mind so many years later! Not a coincidence that my daughter bears the name Holly-Anne; my husband hates the name Lucy....but don't tell him!!!!

    Anyway, I never read any Rosemary Sutcliffe although I have come across her books over here. I think I have some on my to get list, too. I'm going to follow your childhood rereading with interest!

    And by the way, I love Martin Edward's series. I have a post going up today that might make you cry and laugh in some sympathy for my recent plight, all my own fault of course....