Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733

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...

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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 a goat. A chapter that takes place in Margate, England, introduces three formidable aunts, a grandmother, and three uncles of varying degrees of eccentricity; the child Rosemary is a passive observer. There are not many specific details of Sutcliff’s disease, though enough operations, plaster casts, and nursing homes are mentioned to keep the subject in mind. (Something of the importance of what is left out of these sections may be gathered from the fact that Sutcliff is able to describe, in considerable detail, the hands of the first surgeon who treated her.)

The section that covers her school years is more condensed: five chapters for about seven years, compared to the earlier seven chapters for the same length of time. There is only one close friend in Sutcliff’s childhood, Diana Noble, with whom she plays a game called “Lillian and Diana.” Sadly, it is the failure of the game to survive in their imaginations that receives most of Sutcliff’s attention. An adult friend, Colonel Crookenden, treats her like a real person and, later, is instrumental in having her first books published. Yet, it is noticeable that two of the more interesting characters in this part of the book are dogs, Don and Mike. Once again, the omissions tell much of the story.

The last section is even more condensed: five chapters for more than a decade. In particular, Sutcliff’s teenage years, from leaving school at fourteen to the onset of World War II when she was nearly twenty, take up very little of this section. Ironically, the ages about which Sutcliff writes so little are those for which nearly all of her books are intended. These years, following the retirement of her father from the Navy without a much-desired promotion, were evidently years of stress; the family lived in isolation several miles from even a village. Sutcliff describes only the symptoms of her mother’s instability, some adventures of the family dogs, and a brief episode of puppy love for her cousin Edward—all in a very detached and objective way.

The tone of the two chapters describing Sutcliff’s hopeless love for a philandering air force veteran is even more analytical than anything else in the book, except for her illness; the similarity in her attitudes toward these two major events in her life is significant. It is evident that she has belatedly grown up after this episode in her early twenties, and in true authorial style she moves directly from heartbreak to the dawn of a successful writing career.

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Critical Context