There must have been a time – a dark, bleak time – before I was introduced to the Slightly Foxed Editions. I love the Slightly Foxed journal when I get my hands on a copy, but that doesn’t compare to the bottomless affection I have for all the memoirs I’ve read in their Slightly Foxed Editions series. Which is, I realise, only five or six – I still have a long way to go. But the one I finished recently is battling it out with Dodie Smith’s Look Back With Love not only for my favourite SF, but for my second favourite book read this year (Guard Your Daughters has secured first place.)
I need to start condensing my preambles, don’t I? The book is Blue Remembered Hills (1983) by Rosemary Sutcliff, and it is heartwarmingly wonderful. The original run of 2000 hardback copies has sold out and, due to its popularity, Slightly Foxed have produced this paperback edition. Unlike most of the people I’ve spoken to about this book, I’ve never read anything by Rosemary Sutcliff. My allergy to historical fiction has been lifelong, and her Eagle of the Ninth series has never got nearer than the peripheries of my awareness. That doesn’t matter in the slightest, in terms of enjoying this book, believe me.
Born in 1920, Sutcliff was quite isolated in her childhood – she was an only child, and (after suffering Still’s Disease when very young) had varying levels of disability, and spent a great deal of time in and out of hospitals and nursing homes. Yet this couldn’t be further from a misery memoir. Everything is coated with a fascination for life, and a joy for the possibilities of observing and experiencing.
Like Smith’s childhood memoir, Sutcliff has great fun describing all her relatives – how blessed these memoirists seem to have been with comic uncles and aunts! – and especially her parents. Her mother seems to have had undiagnosed bipolar disorder – Sutcliff describes times when her mood would change for days without warning – and this understandably made her unpredictable to live with. This was coupled with a difficult personality, and Sutcliff (though generous to her) clearly didn’t have an entirely easy mother/daughter relationship. Her father (a sailor) spent long periods away from home – all in all, not a simple childhood for young Rosemary.
But, as I say, she finds the beauty and joy in this all – not by ignoring her difficulties, but by maintaining an optimistic attitude. Indeed, it wasn’t until I sat back and put together the information Sutcliff gives about her parents that I realised the difficulties she faced. In Blue Remembered Hills this sort of excerpt represents the tone with which Sutcliff recalls them:
He was a lieutenant when he and my mother were married. The had first met when they were both fourteen, at a mixed hockey match, and he always claimed that the first word he ever heard her say was ‘Damn’, which I suppose, to judge from her vehemence in protesting that it was the first time she had ever said it, was quite a word in those days. My father’s invariable retort – oh, the lovely ritual changlessness of family hokes and traditions! – was that for a first time, she said it with remarkable fluency.
I think my favourite thing about childhood memoirs is the revelation of family jokes. It makes the reader feel, at least for a page or two, that they’ve been inducted into the family. We all have these, don’t we? And they’re usually senseless and silly, and oh so precious!
Among Sutcliff’s many memories, the ones which most warmed my heart were about Miss Beck’s school. Education reform has doubtless done much for children’s welfare, but as a side-effect it was removed the possibility of anything as joyful as this:
In a small back room with peeling wallpaper, under the eye of a gaunt elderly maid, I was stripped of my coat, leggings and tam-o’-shanter, in company with twelve or fourteen others of my kind. And with them, all on my own, so grown up, I filed through into the schoolroom, to be receive, as Royalty receives, by Miss Beck herself, who sat, upright as Royalty sits, in a heavily carved Victorian armchair.
My schooldays proper had begun.
Looking back with warm affection at that first school of mine, I can hardly believe that it was real, and not something dreamed up out of the pages of Cranford or Quality Street. I suppose nowadays it would not be allowed to exist at all. Miss Amelia Beck had no teaching qualifications whatsoever, save the qualifications of long experience and love. She was the daughter of a colonel of Marines, in her eighty-sixth year when I became one of her pupils; and for more than sixty years, in her narrow house overlooking the Lines at Chatham, she had taught the children of the dockyard and the barracks. She accepted only the children of service families. Oh, the gentle snobbery of a bygone age; bygone even then, and having less to do with class than totem. It was her frequent boast that she had smacked, in their early days, most of the senior officers of both services. Both, not all three, for the RAF was too young as yet to count for much in Miss Beck’s scheme of things. But I do not think that it can have been true, unless she had gentled greatly with the passing of her years. For I never knew her to smack anybody during the year that I sat at her feet.
Isn’t that blissful? There is quite a bit about this school and Miss Beck, who stayed in touch with every pupil she taught (or so Sutcliff claims!) – it is all fairly ordinary, but made extraordinary through Sutcliff’s lovely writing and engaging personality.
In fact, it is the ordinariness of Sutcliff’s life that makes Blue Remembered Hills so difficult to write about. It is oddly similar to The Outward Room, reviewed yesterday, in being significant not for its incidents, but for the beautiful way in which they are related. After relaying the activities, thoughts, people and pets of her childhood, Sutcliff relays her early career as a miniaturist (not, she notes sadly, a form likely to win any major notice in the art world) and her first infatuation. Those are the two important strands in the second half of the book, I suppose, and it continues up to her first literary commissions. But the events are so much less vital than the tone.
So, yes, it’s another book you have to read to appreciate… but, oh, what a warm, engaging, beautiful book it is. One of the very few where I cannot bear the lessening pages as I read on – and which I am certain I shall return to time and again. Slightly Foxed – I don’t know how you do it. You are my new addiction. Long may you continue to find memoirs as spectacularly lovely as this!
Others who got Stuck into this:
“Perfect. My only complaint is that it is too short.” – Leaves and Pages
“The tone of the book is one of gratitude for life’s blessings & joy at the natural world, her friends, her dogs & her love for her parents.” – Lyn, I Prefer Reading