A reader coming to Blue Remembered Hills from any of Sutcliff’s historical novels will be surprised by many things in the book. The grandeur and the sweeping vision of her Roman stories are, inevitably, missing, as is the unmistakable cadence of their prose. Reticence and restraint are the motifs, as is apparent from the first sentence: “When anybody asks me where I was born, or when I am called on to provide that information in filling in a form, I admit with a distinct sense of apology that I was born in Surrey.” That sense of apology pervades the book, as if the author is astonished that anyone should want to know about her rather uneventful life.
More important even than the natural diffidence that seems to curb Sutcliff’s writing when the subject is herself, the stoic attitude of a lifelong invalid appears on almost every page. She recounts being brought up like “a cross between a Red Indian brave and that annoying Spartan youth with a fox under his cloak” and tells of receiving an award from the Girl Guides for undergoing pain without complaint, called the fortitude badge. (There is even a photograph of this occasion.)
It is apparent that Sutcliff regards her life as a story without a hero—at least, without a hero of the kind that she has celebrated in her novels. She tells this tale mainly in terms of the people and events that surrounded her in childhood and in terms of her reactions to them. Significantly, perhaps, the fullest and most vivid accounts are of her early childhood, and the succeeding chapters grow steadily shorter and less detailed.
In the earliest chapters, Sutcliff focuses on a few isolated vivid memories, such as two from Malta: a memorable battle of wills with her dominating mother and a traumatic encounter with...
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No other twentieth century author wrote of British history with the comprehensive vision of Sutcliff, yet she remained essentially a private figure. This book presents her admirers a glimpse of the writer. For all its modesty and its stripped-down prose style, the book also offers some insights into what Sutcliff admires and why. The quiet heroism of Marcus in The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), her first major success, begins not when he is a confident young centurion but when, wounded and only partly rehabilitated, he continues to serve both Rome and his adopted country. Drem, the crippled hero of Warrior Scarlet (1958), also takes on a new meaning, as do count-less other Sutcliff heroes who learn through suffering. Even the love for animals that is a constant theme in her historical novels also seems more understandable in the light of Sutcliff’s autobiography.
This book celebrates the triumph of a determined individual over great odds. Life-threatening disease and its crippling effects have great interest for young adult readers; Blue Remembered Hills describes these threats far better than most problem novels do, yet without the easy sentimentality and quick answers that often accompany them in fiction.