Hearing that the film of The Eagle Of The Ninth is to hit cinemas in 2011, I have been re-reading some of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels and I was struck, this time round, by her descriptions of the natural world - the wealth of detail compressed into word-pictures that seem to inflate magically as you read them, filling the imagination with pictures.
The Eagle Of The Ninth was first published in 1954 and for a long time Rosemary Sutfliff’s books were to be found in every children’s library and on every list of recommended fiction for young people. But by the mid nineteen seventies they had begun to disappear from the shelves. There was no time in the modern world for that slow, solid build-up of plot. And children, it was argued, did not want to read books like that any longer. Rosemary Sutcliff's status changed from well-known children’s author, to classic children’s author; finally she was consigned to the dusty realm of nostalgia.
Now that the forthcoming film has provoked brand new editions of her novels I found myself asking this question: if she were she a first-time author today, would she be snapped up by an eager children’s publisher?
Somehow I doubt it. The idea of childhood has changed out of all recognition since the nineteen fifties, and the pace of life has speeded up immeasurably. In the same way, the focus of children’s books has shifted. Rosemary Sutcliff beguiles her readers with tales of adventure, drawing them into a beautifully reconstructed representation of an unfamiliar world. Contemporary children’s books, by contrast, work like mirrors, reflecting the young reader’s own view of the world. The child is the authority today.
Nevertheless, as I work my way through the masterful pageant of life in Roman Britain that Rosemary Sutcliff offers her readers, I feel a pang of regret for the quiet confidence of old-fashioned storytelling.