Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Oldies But Goodies from Rosemary Sutcliff

One of my goals in life is to read everything written by Rosemary Sutcliff, so I've been reading her 1957 novel Lady in Waiting, the story of Bess Throckmorton, who secretly married Sir Walter Raleigh (to the displeasure of Queen Elizabeth I).

While I can't say it's among my favorites of Sutcliff's work, it has been fun to read, particularly to learn all the archaic English terms the author puts in her characters' mouths. Here are a few of them:

  • tussy-mussy -- From the context, I thought it meant a messy ball of embroidery floss (Sutcliff: she "drew a strand of golden silk from the rainbow tussy-mussy beside her") but it appears she was using the term metaphorically. According to World Wide Words, it literally means a nosegay (or bouquet) of mixed flowers and herbs. It was common through the late 1600s, when it disappeared from common usage, possibly because it had become slang for a part of women's anatomy (imagine which one). It was revived in the 1940s and now if you Google it you'll be told it's a metal stand for a bouquet at weddings. What a great bit of verbiage to add to your vocabulary!
  • Marry-come-up! -- exclamation of mild disapproval. Marry is a euphemism for Mary (a mild swear word), and come-up means come to my assistance, so it's somewhat like exclaiming "So help me God" when you're exasperated.
  • in such a smother -- a state of excitation or disorder. I'm not sure if this is pronounced smuh-ther or smah-ther. Googling it tells me that it's used in an unfamiliar verse of Yankee Doodle in a way that fits with how Sutcliff used it.
  • slubbercullion -- someone who is very messy, as in covered in mud after a long horse ride. I'm proud to say that this word does not exist anywhere on the Interweb. So if anyone else ever Googles it, they'll find this entry.
  • henchwoman -- I found this one particularly amusing. We're all familiar with "henchmen," but I've always thought it meant something along the lines of "hoodlums who help out a bad guy." I've never heard anyone refer to the hero of a story having henchmen. But Sutcliff's main character, Bess, refers to her female servant as her henchwoman. To a contemporary reader, it's pretty jarring (I kept visualizing the poor woman wearing a black mask over her eyes like a cartoon). The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word derives from hengestman or "high-ranking servant," originally groom (as in horse groom, not bride groom). The OED goes on to say, the "sense of 'obedient or unscrupulous follower' is first recorded [in] 1839, probably based on a misunderstanding of the word as used by [Sir Walter] Scott."
I can't write a post about Lady in Waiting without mentioning its amusingly dated cover illustration. (Apologies for the marginal image. I'll post a better one when technology begins to obey me.)

Cover of Lady in Waiting
Created by Al Schmidt, the painting style is rampant mid-20th century commercial art. The beauty standard applied to Bess's face has more in common with Elizabeth Taylor than Elizabethan women. And the neckline of the dress is so modest and the cut so loose, it would make the Hays Office proud.

The book inside the covers, however, is much more faithful to the time it depicts, thanks to Rosemary Sutcliff. So this is one example where I would be wrong to judge a book by its cover.


Anthony said...

have linked to this interesting post about Lady in is the goal of reading all Rosemary Sutcliff progressing. See

CLM said...

My mother is a huge fan and even got a response to a fan letter once. I should join you in the quest to read the complete work. I have read this one, which I own, and about eight others, including another set in the 16th century.