You suffered from Still’s Disease beginning in childhood. You never married or had children. You never served in the military or participated in combat or marches or sailing. But I suspect you knew pain. I suspect you knew longing.
Dear Ms. Sutcliff,
Right off I’ll say that it doesn’t seem right for me to call you “Rosemary.” First of all, you’re British, which suggests a certain formality. Also, you’ve been dead for nearly twenty-four years and you were born in 1920, so you’re much older than I am, and the polite, Midwestern boy inside me just can’t bring himself to call an elder by her first name. But the real reason for the formal address is simple—I’m not your equal. You’re so far above me as a writer—and probably as a person—that we can’t really be on a first-name basis. We just can’t.
You’re probably wondering why I’m bothering you. (If you can be bothered at all. You may be “experiencing” eternal nothingness, and this letter will never reach you. That scares me quite a bit actually, but I think I’d be better served by having that conversation with my therapist.) Still, it might seem odd that a middle-aged, suspense novelist—a guy who writes contemporary stories about missing people and weird crimes and unsolved murders set in middle America—would choose to write to a deceased British historical novelist who primarily wrote about Roman Britain, and whose work was often classified as young adult (although I think that label, like all genre labels, is limiting.) So why am I bothering your eternal rest, Ms. Sutcliff?
Simple. I think you’re one of the best novelists I’ve ever read.
About five years ago, a movie was made based on your most famous book, THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH. The movie was simply called THE EAGLE, and it starred Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. (You probably don’t know them unless you’ve become omniscient in the next life, but the former is dreamy, the latter is no relation to me.) I occasionally read historical fiction, and I’d heard your book was excellent. So I bought it. At the time, I was in a bit of a reading slump. Nothing sounded good. Nothing I picked up grabbed me. I just wanted a good story, one with full-blooded characters and rich writing, a story that had everything—love, war, a father-son relationship, honor, duty, regret. I wasn’t asking for too much, was I?
Well, you delivered. Big time. It’s a simple enough story. Marcus Flavia Aquila is a Roman soldier who is haunted by the disappearance of his father—also a soldier—in battle. Not only did his father’s entire legion disappear without a trace north of Hadrian’s Wall, the legion’s standard—the eagle of the title—disappeared as well. This was a big deal to the Romans, sort of like when your rival high school steals your school’s mascot and spray paints it with their colors…except much, much worse. No other Roman legion had ever lost their standard. When Marcus Aquila is severely wounded in battle and mustered out of the army, he decides to risk everything by travelling in disguise north of the wall—where no Roman went anymore—accompanied only by his faithful slave, Esca, in order to find the lost standard and restore his father’s honor.
Is a story published in the 1950s and set in the second century A.D. still relevant to modern readers? Yes, if you live in a country with a number of wounded veterans returning from war haunted by their experiences. And, yes, if you think it’s worth questioning whether a powerful country (empire) might have overextended itself in an attempt to bring “light” to every corner of the earth. Yes, if you think a child can be plagued by the mistakes of a parent long after that parent is gone. Yes, if you’ve ever been young and in love. And, yes, if you’ve ever had to leave someone you love behind.
And, Ms. Sutcliff, I’d like to point out that I’m even more impressed that you wrote all these books from a wheelchair because you suffered from Still’s Disease beginning in childhood. You never married or had children. You never served in the military or participated in combat or marches or sailing. But I suspect you knew pain. I suspect you knew longing. And your imagination and understanding of the human heart make up for all of it.
I’ve bothered you long enough. I hope you know your books are still alive where we live. Even if you are in perpetual nothingness, your writing lives on. And your writing should, and probably will, live on for a very long time. Some things are eternal.
[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]
David Bell is the author of Cemetery Girl (2011), The Hiding Place (2012), Never Come Back (2013), The Forgotten Girl (2014), Somebody I Used to Know (2015), and Since She Went Away (2016), all published by NAL, a division of Penguin Random House. Originally from Cincinnati, he is an associate professor and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Western Kentucky University.
Rosemary Sutcliff wrote more than 40 historical novels for young adults-including The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, The Sword and the Circle, and Black Ships Before Troy-five adult novels, and several books of nonfiction.