Sunday, October 5, 2014

Rider on a White Horse

I took a field trip to the main library in downtown St. Paul about a month ago. This 1917 Italian Renaissance revival building has a wonderful children's room with many books that probably don't circulate a lot because they're old and have decidedly dated covers.

I went in search of works by Rosemary Sutcliff, the British writer of historical fiction for children. My childhood favorites of hers are The Mark of the Horse Lord, Warrior Scarlet, and The Eagle of the Ninth. As an adult, I also discovered The Knight's Fee, which I'd rate as among her best works.

She wrote a few adult novels as well, including Lady in Waiting, about Bess Throckmorton, the wife of Sir Walter Raleigh, which I wrote up a while ago. On this trip to the library, I found Rider on a White Horse, the story of Lady Anne Fairfax, whose husband Thomas Fairfax was a leading general in the English civil war.

Rider on a White Horse is, I have to say, not a new favorite Sutcliff book. For an American, even one who was a history major, there's a lot of background knowledge assumed about the aristocracy and the ins and outs of 17th century Britain politics. But I enjoyed it, and especially watched for Sutcliff's trademark use of dazzling archaic words.

Garboil: "it will not be helped by making a garboil!" (page 28). The dictionary definition is "a confused disordered state : turmoil. (Middle French garbouil, from Old Italian garbuglio.)

Galloper: an attendant soldier who acts as a messenger to a commander (page 57). I figured this one out from context.

Rattalpan of the drums: clear enough from the context, but a lovely bit of verbiage (page 59).

Culverin: clearly some type of weapon. The word is used multiple times, to the point where I figured out it's some type of cannon (the first use is on page 60).

Back-and-breasts: From context, I assumed it was a type of small armor (page 62). "Farmer-faced pikemen in back-and-breasts and steel comb-caps…" (Note: This is not a phrase you can search successfully on the interweb.)

Beck: a small stream (page 90). "…the air was alive with the sound of running water where the little necks, swollen by the thaw, went down to the Dale in spate." (This one is also hard to look up, given the ubiquity of Glenn Beck and Beck the musician. And it's not in my abridged Webster's either.)

Slut: used in a mostly nonpejorative way to describe a camp-follower woman (page 142). "…several women were at work among the wounded. Anne saw a slut in a once-scarlet petticoat squatting with her man's head in her lap and a black bottle in her hand which she held to his mouth or her own with complete impartiality."

Tell-tale-tit: from the context, a tattle-tale (page 184). Which made me realize what a great word tattle-tale is.

In addition to the vocabulary lesson, I also appreciated the way Sutcliff weaves the flora of England into the story, from the white snowdrops that are used to frame the opening and closing of the book to the mystery vine growing in a garden in the doomed town of Bradford.

A few particularly nice bits of description that included plants:
  • "The flax flowers quivered like a haze of butterflies in the fields." (p. 187)
  • "The wind made silver hushings through the willow tree…" (p. 202)
  • "the great bee-haunted, velvet scented crimson roses…" (p. 250)
It's always a pleasure to read Rosemary Sutcliff's words and experience another time, even if I don't understand all of the references.

No comments: