Friday, November 13, 2015

The Queen Elizabeth Story by Rosemary Sutcliff

Some of you will know about my next fairytale novella release, The Bells of Paradise, which is coming sometime in the New Year. I'm so happy about this story, which is a Faerie Queene and Tam Lin mashup retelling the beautiful yet obscure fairytale Jorinda and Joringel IN SPAAAAACE TUDOR ENGLAND!

Now some folks have been asking me when I plan to release The Bells of Paradise and the original answer was going to be sometime this month. However, some last-minute plot tweaks inspired by one of my wonderful (and highly discriminating) beta readers meant the release got postponed.

Beside plot tweaks, I also decided I should put some study into fleshing out the setting. Sure, I was pretty much marinated in Shakespeare and Spenser, so imagery and dialogue were easy enough to reproduce. But as for the everyday details of life in Elizabethan England--well, Shakespeare set most of his plays in Italy, and Spenser was writing secondary-world fantasy. Things like rushlights, oriel windows, mirrors of Venetian glass, coffered ceilings, and leaving out a dish of milk on the stoop for the Lordly Folk don't get mentioned much in the period literature.

That was why I decided to read Rosemary Sutcliff's The Queen Elizabeth Story.

One of Sutcliff's earliest works, The Queen Elizabeth Story is a sweet, gentle, fanciful story for little girls, quite similar in tone and whimsy to Elizabeth Goudge's lovely Smoky-House or The Little White Horse. On the night of her eighth birthday, little Perdita, the daughter of the Rector of Broomhall, is visited by fairies who promise to grant her a wish within the next year. Perdita's wish is to see Queen Elizabeth herself, heroine of her favourite bedtime story. As the year slowly passes, through Christmas festivities, new friendships, and her father's stories of ancient legends, Perdita begins to wonder if her wish will ever come true...

Now most people aren't going to be interested in this book as an author looking to improve historical accuracy in her setting. So I will just quickly say that this book provided all the detail I needed and far, far more. Beyond this, parents wanting to introduce their children to the story of Elizabeth I and provide them with a vivid, evocative, and historically-accurate picture of their times can hardly do better than this. Sutcliff uses her story as a framework to explore aspects of Elizabethan life from food and clothing to seafaring and festivity.

There was so much to love about The Queen Elizabeth Story. Besides the immersive vividness of the setting, there's also the gentle and compelling story, peopled with charming and likeable characters. Perdita is a sweet heroine, her family and friends are equally charming, and although the story is more slice-of-live than plot-driven, it pulls you in and holds you spell-bound in the best possible way.

Then there's Rosemary Sutcliff's absolutely smashing writing style. This book is simply gloriously written. Her language is clear, simple...and beautiful. Her descriptions of colours must be read to be believed--"a gay, boisterous sort of blue, picked out in scarlet"--or another blue "as joyous as a kingfisher's mantle". This is the first Sutcliff book I've read since I was a philistine teenager, so I don't recall being so impressed when I've read her previously. This book had me sighing in delight on every page.

Some parents may be a little hesitant about the magical realism of the plot--in that fairies (or "pharisees") are taken for granted as part of the vivid historical setting, and only little Perdita can see them, and they then grant her a wish and bring it to pass. I do think I might have been a little confused by this as a child (but then, I was once confused during a live performance of The Sound of Music into thinking that the real von Trapps were there in the theatre and trying to escape from the Geelong Performing Arts Centre before they were caught by real Gestapo. True story!)

That said, I really liked how Sutcliff used this plot strand to bring out a thoroughly good theme of patience, waiting quietly, and holding onto faith that one's desires have not been forgotten and will be fulfilled. I can imagine many girls, big and little, who would profit from that!

In conclusion, I loved The Queen Elizabeth Story and I think I very much need to revisit Rosemary Sutcliff more often.

Sadly, The Queen Elizabeth Story appears to be out of print. Try Amazon or


Jamie W. said...

Well. I haven't, alas, read this one, but (besides being madly excited about The Bells of Paradise) may I recommend for your next Sutcliff The Rider on the White Horse?

A beautiful, rich, vivid historical fiction novel, as one expects from Sutcliff...

Set in the English Civil War...

With Parliamentarians.

Good Parliamentarians.

As the main characters.

Christina Baehr said...

I'm with Jamie - we'd both love your thoughts on that novel. I wanted to love it, but it left me a bit disappointed.

It did make me want to learn more about Sir Thomas Fairfax, and his wife, though. You want to know the saddest part of this book if you love the 17th century? When you realise just who it was that the Fairfax daughter married. :(

"The Armorer's House" is a more substantial children's novel in the same style as TQES, and every bit as special.

Jamie W. said...

I agree, Christina. There were moments when I could tell that Sutcliff didn't quite understand what truly motivated a faithful Puritan. She came so close so many times, though! The main character's bitterness at times was frustrating, but believable; the Parliamentarians began with so many great dreams and possibilities, and seeing those be battered by the reality of war must have been heartbreaking for many. It made the novel rather sad, though.

I appreciated that she tried, though. The Parliamentary Puritans are at once deeply unfashionable (and always have been) and also the losing side, so there's very little allure in them for a novelist, which is frustrating.

I understand Fairfax also appears in a children's novel, also by Sutcliff, that has a similar setting. It's called Simon. Has anyone read that?

Oh dear me. That wretch Buckingham? I had no idea! Poor girl.

Suzannah said...

As it happens, I've had a copy of The Rider of the White Horse for a few years, though I've not yet read it! I have, however, read Simon in my youth, and enjoyed it quite a bit. Beautiful story, told with characters on both sides but focusing, again, on the Parliamentarians.

Christina Baehr said...

Jamie, I also appreciated that Sutcliff was not biased against the Parliamentarians. Although not Christian herself, she gave them a much fairer portrayal that the devout Anglican Elizabeth Goudge did (compare their portrayals of Cromwell)!

I really want to read Simon!

And Buckingham....somehow it makes it even sadder that she chose him herself over other suitors. ;(


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