Archives For Rosemary Sutcliff

Avoiding Gadzookeries

August 25, 2014 — 8 Comments

gadzookeryWriting quality historical fiction is challenging. This is especially true if one wishes to avoid the common crutch that a talented writer of the last century first labeled “gadzookery.”

And just what is this faux pas we should avoid when writing about the past? Well, it relates most directly to the dialog placed on the lips of historical figures. The offensive technique involves the overuse of archaic expressions or phrases. (Some would argue it includes any use of any archaisms.)

If the word gadzookery sounds a tad, how shall I put it, “goofy” to you, you may prefer using another word that means the same thing: “tushery.” Tushery was coined by Robert Louis Stevenson. Way back in the nineteenth century.

Gadzookery is a newer version, insulting the same lazy writing technique. I believe it may have been coined by Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992). Sutcliff’s historical influence has exerted a literary influence on my life second only to C.S. Lewis.*

The article about Sutcliff in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature praises her work, saying, “She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’”

Having tested the waters of historical fiction myself, I know this to be far more difficult that it may sound.

Sutcliff had several things in common with C.S. Lewis. Both wrote for adults and for children. (It was her young adult series about the decline of Roman influence in Britain that sparked my own lifelong interest in Rome.)

Both authors also received the Carnegie Medal for their work. When Lewis was awarded his, he received a congratulatory letter from Pauline Baynes, who had illustrated several of his books. He responded quite graciously.

Dear Miss Baynes, Very nice to hear from you again, and thanks for sending on the book, which I have returned to Lane. Thanks for your congratulations on the Carnegie, but is it not rather ‘our’ Medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into consideration as well as the text. I am well, and as happy as a man can be whose wife is desperately ill.

Although C.S. Lewis had married, quite late in life, the two authors were alike in spending most of their life single. Sutcliff, in fact, lived with her parents during most of her life, having suffered crippling arthritis as a child. She did not resent remaining unmarried. In a 1992 interview she said,

Beatrix Potter wrote all her gorgeous stories when she was very lonely and not very happy—after she married, she never wrote another thing. Nothing worth reading, anyway.

Another similarity between the two was that they both fell under the powerful sway of myth during their childhoods. They used their familiarity with its rich echoes to imbue their own work with themes that flowed far beyond the familiar channels travelled by other writers.

Each of them took their readers seriously, and refused to speak down to them. That is why they share one more quality I wish to mention in closing—their high standards. Neither Lewis nor Sutcliff could tolerate poor writing. And their finely tuned skills meant neither ever needed to resort to gadzookery.

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* Excepting, of course, the Bible itself, which is literature of an entirely different sort. I don’t consider it fair to compare mortal writers, no matter how inspired, to a volume I regard as God’s written word.

The Ides of March

March 15, 2012 — 7 Comments

I was introduced to ancient Rome as a young reader. Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992) wrote such fine historical fiction that it appeals to young readers and adults alike. A film version of The Eagle of the Ninth was made just last year. And I’m a sucker for a good Roman movie (wherein “good” excludes all of the so-called spaghetti gladiator films made in the fifties and sixties).

As a student of Rome, I find it worth noting today’s date. Even those who know “nothing” about Rome should understand its significance. You don’t need to have studied Latin or the classics to understand the warning “Beware the Ides of March.” The Ides is the fifteenth day of the month. And it was on this day that Julius Caesar was murdered by members of the Roman Senate.

It was left to his adopted son, Caesar Augustus, to transform the Republic into an autocratic Empire. It was this Caesar who ruled Rome at the time of Jesus’ birth, and he bequeathed the title of “Caesar” to his heirs. When Jesus requested that the Pharisees and Herodians “show him the coin for the tax,” we do not know whether Augustus or Caesar Tiberius adorned it. It matters not, since the image of Caesar was tantamount to representing Rome itself.

Jesus taught his disciples to be discerning in the loyalties we offer. We are to be responsible citizens. But we are also required to remember our true citizenship rests in the New Jerusalem.

C.S. Lewis astutely illustrated this truth. He lived during two global conflicts, and served in combat defending his homeland. Yet Lewis recognized the dangers of placing our trust (faith) in even the “noble” things of this world.

A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself. (“Learning in War-Time” – a sermon preached in Oxford in 1939).

So, on this day when Julius’ dreams of glory bled out in Rome . . . may you and I find refuge, hope, peace and meaning in the One who bled and died for each of us on Calvary.