Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Rosemary Sutcliff: Seeing Plants

Rosemary Sutcliff's novels for young people are known for their compelling stories of British history, but when I've read or reread them in recent years, the thing that catches my attention the most is her ability to weave the plants of Britain into her settings.

I noted this in an earlier post about the book Rider on a White Horse, and saw it again in her memoir, Blue Remembered Hills. This book tells the story of her own life up to her mid-20s -- including the beginning of her life-long disability and often-grueling medical treatments, not to mention living through World War II. But the plants spoke to me almost as much.

One thing about Sutcliff that I never knew as a child reader, and barely realized as an adult, was that she was also a miniaturist painter. I wonder if that ability is part of the reason she could create descriptions that lend detail without bogging the story down.

Here is one botanical highlight from her memoir:

…I sat in disgrace outside [Aunt Lucy's] back gate…. though by that time I could walk a little, my knees were set rigid and I could not get up without help…. But I did not feel in disgrace, and I was in no hurry to be forgiven and taken back. I was perfectly happy where I was, I was discovering downland turf for the first time. As we grow older, we forget how near to the ground we once were…. So I sat outside Aunt Lucy's gate, with my legs stuck straight out in front of me, and investigated and experienced to my heart's content the foot or two of world going on around me. Pink and white convolvulus smelling of almond paste rambled along the foot of my aunt's raw new fence; and the turf itself was not just grass, but a densely interwoven forest of thyme and scarlet pimpernel, creamy honey-scented clover and cinquefoil and the infinitely small and perfect eye-bright with the spot of celestial yellow at its heart; all held close to the ground on stems less than an inch high, which is the result of a few hundred years of cropping by downland sheep (page 36).

She also spent much of her childhood walking (or sometimes riding in a cart) with her mother through the varying types of countryside where they lived as her father was moved from one naval post to another. Sutcliff explains how in her teens she became more systematic about her observations of nature:
In those walks I came to know one small patch of country at every time of the year, in all weathers and all moods, and but for them, I think I would have less skill in writing of country things than I have now. Once I even kept a kind of nature diary for the round of a whole year, recording the first honeysuckle leaves like tiny green praying hands in their January hedges, the first cuckoo, a blue haze over the summer hills, a squall of rain, the scent of the little creamy Man Orchis in a damp ditch, sowing and harvesting of winter wheat. I had it for years (page 102).
Blue Remembered Hills is a lovely memoir and Sutcliff's words make me want to go to Britain and lie in a field for a few hours, just to learn to see the plants as she did.

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