Friday, December 23, 2016

The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

Merry Christmas to you all for next week! As usual, I've been flat out trying to fit one last writing project into the year before gratefully slipping into much-needed oblivion over the holiday period. And, because I'm lazy, and you're all busy with Christmas anyway, I thought I would merely mention, in an off-hand sort of way, that I've just finished work on another fairytale novella first draft. This one is the long-awaited retelling of my favourite fairytale of all time, King Thrushbeard. Obviously, a story this special to me needs to be retold in a pretty special way; and so this one was not an easy story to write.

However, the first incoherent draft is written, and it's in the style of a vintage swashbuckler (because secret identities and antagonistic love stories fit so well into this genre), and it's set during the English Civil War. The working title is Lady Disdain, and so far I'm happy about how it's come together!

As usual, I read a number of books to prepare myself for this story, and one of the books I read (in addition to a couple of melodramatic Rafael Sabatini swashbucklers and Geoffrey Robertson's absolutely smashing The Tyrannicide Brief) was Rosemary Sutcliff's The Rider of the White Horse.

This particular novel is one of the stories Sutcliff wrote specifically for adults, not children. Now granted, all the books of Sutcliff's that I've read have been of such quality that distinctions like "adults'" or "children's" cease to apply. It's been a while since I read Sutcliff's great YA novels - The Eagle of the Ninth, The Shield Ring, and many others - but I felt that The Rider of the White Horse was pretty similar in tone and quality.

Anyway, The Rider of the White Horse is a historical novel covering the first few years of the English Civil War in Yorkshire, from the beginning of the war in 1642 to the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Our protagonist is Anne Fairfax, the wife of Sir Thomas Fairfax who would become the commander in chief of the New Model Army and de facto ruler of England in the turbulent years of the Rump Parliament. 

When this story begins, however, Sir Thomas is only an obscure Yorkshire gentleman, quiet, reserved, and plagued by recurrent illness. Anne, his wife, loves him deeply but feels that her love is not returned. When war breaks out, Anne accompanies Thomas on campaign and through danger, sickness, and even captivity, finds a measure of happiness she never had in peacetime.

The Rider of the White Horse was an absolutely beautiful novel in a whole number of different ways. Sutcliff could weave sheer magic with words, and under her pen, the Yorkshire backdrop to her story, the sensitive characters that people it, and the battlefield action that punctuates it, are all marvellously vivid. And although the plot was a little tenuous, as befits a relatively true-to-life, character-driven portrait of real people and events, there was plenty of action and danger to keep a plot-lover like me interested. 

The historical detail in the book was wonderful. A few passages, especially near the beginning, were a little exposition-heavy, and there are a couple of places where there's room to challenge Sutcliff's evaluation of the history: I thought the foreshadowing of the King's death was a little heavy-handed, for example; according to Geoffrey Robertson there's good reason to believe that no one seriously imagined trying the King for his crimes, let alone cutting off his head, until 1648. Robertson also argues pretty persuasively that at the time it happened Fairfax was not opposed to the execution of the King, as Sutcliff states. But generally the historical detail in the book seemed effortless - more as if Sutcliff was writing of things she remembered, than things she had researched and imagined.

As for the love story, I'm in two minds about it. On the one hand, the characters of Anne and Thomas Fairfax, and the slow, bittersweet growth they go through, is written with a great deal of sensitivity and subtlety. It was beautiful, and moving, and satisfying - within the novel. The problem appears when you step outside the world of the novel, and consider the historical facts within the context of the larger history. As my friend Christina pointed out when we discussed this book a few months ago, Lady Anne Fairfax certainly accompanied her husband on campaign, which was rather unusual for the time. What was not at all unusual for the time, was the Puritan ideal of companionate marriage, in which, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before in history, a married couple were expected to love, confide in, rely upon, and befriend each other. Given that the historical Anne Fairfax was so ready to put herself in danger and discomfort in order to accompany her husband on campaign, and he found it so important to have her, isn't is more natural to draw the conclusion that the Fairfaxes must have had an unusually close and happy marriage?

From the novel, it seemed clear to me that Sutcliff's Thomas Fairfax is a deeply reserved man with a deep love for his wife but without the gift of being able to communicate it to her in ways that she understood. At least that's the impression I got from the way the characters interacted - but Sutcliff seemed to be trying to convince me that this gentle and self-sacrificing character did not really love her. Not really. Christina suggests, and I tend to agree that on the contrary, a real seventeenth-century woman would have interpreted this as love, and that both Sutcliff's personal and cultural background may have conspired to prevent her recognising this. Culturally, in the 1950s, the ideal of marriage was pretty out of joint with the Puritan companionate ideal: many wives spent their time in the home, bored and unfulfilled, waiting for their husbands to come home and pay attention to them. There was an unnatural division between husband and wife, an expectation that the husband would get fulfilment via meaningful dominion work, while the wife would get fulfilment through the meeting of her emotional needs. In the Puritan ideal, however, both parties have their emotional needs met through the kind of shared dominion work that the historical Fairfaxes obviously undertook. They are a team; they are not shunted off into separate blue-and-pink universes.

Rosemary Sutcliff's tragic personal life may have also contributed to her skewed romantic paradigm. If I'm informed correctly, she had a love affair with a married man who told her although she was his true love, it was impossible for him to divorce his wife to marry her. After the affair was over, he later did divorce his wife and remarry--to someone else. So, Sutcliff's most powerful personal experience of love was also one of waiting for a man to tire of his quest and meet the woman's emotional needs - but perhaps that's a paradigm that comes out more clearly in Sutcliff's novel about Sir Walter Raleigh's wife, Lady in Waiting.

All of which are fascinating thoughts, and perhaps a useful indication of why Sutcliff chose to tell the story she did. Nevertheless, it's undeniable that in The Rider of the White Horse she has told her story with wonderful skill and feeling.

5 comments:

The Wasp said...

Having read several Henry Treece books in the last few years, I've been meaning to check out Sutcliff's Roman novels. Very different as this one is, it sounds quite worth investigating.

Hayden said...

King Thrushbeard in the style of a vintage swashbuckler!!! WHY DIDN'T I THINK OF THAT??? Seriously though... two of my favorite things. I'm so excited for this :)

That is all.

Jamie W said...

Interesting point about the question of whether the Fairfaxes (in the novel) do love each other. I ended the book saying to myself, "So he does really love her!" I saw them as having difficulty communicating their care for each other, but in the end discovering each other's strengths and forgiving each other's weaknesses--in fact I saw that as the major overarching character change in the book.. That's partly because I interpreted a lot of the doubt on that point in the book as not Sutcliff's own interpretation, the result of Anne's own self-doubt and struggle to trust Thomas (augmented by the fact that they obviously communicate in very different ways). But maybe I'm enough of a seventeenth-century girl to perceive their love as love despite an author who doesn't realize it! It's also worth noting that I very much wanted to love *everything* about this book, which may have led to a charitable reading. So not to disagree with your interpretation, but maybe a sign that some of the historical facts of the case made it into the book despite a blind spot on the author's part?

(I do have an extreme soft spot for Puritan/Parliamentary couples--still hoping for someone to do a joint biography of John and Elizabeth Lilburne!)

Anyway, this is a lovely review, and you are spot-on about the historical detail. I love Sutcliff's little touches of atmosphere: lighting lamps and how clothing moved and the sounds of horses.

nesskingsley said...

Ohhh! I've read this one (and Lady In Waiting too. Gosh that one was awfully disappointing!) I always thought that Thomas did love her - but wished that Sutcliff would have shown it a little better and with less subtleness.

King Thrushbeard ... can't wait for it. I love that fairytale and look forward to putting my paws on your rendition of it.

Suzannah said...

*staggers belatedly in, picking holly out of hair, to answer comments*

Wasp, I remember reading Henry Treece novels as a child! Personally, I enjoyed Sutcliff better - THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH is a fantastic adventure story - but maybe I should revisit some Treece sometime.

Hayden, aww, thanks! You're always so encouraging :). Thrushbeard and swashbucklers are also two of my favourite things as well!

Jamie, I love what you say about being enough of a 17th-C girl to perceive their love as love, because that's exactly how I felt as well. I just don't know whether Sutcliff did! John and Elizabeth Lilburne - now there's another fascinating couple. Lilburne was incredible - there's a fair bit on him in Robertson's THE TYRANNICIDE BRIEF, and I was cackling in horrified admiration.

Ness, yes, I also got the impression from the book that Thomas did love her. As I mentioned to Jamie, I'm just not sure Sutcliff had the same impression! And thanks for the encouragement re: Thrushbeard. I'm looking forward to seeing how the story develops through future drafts...

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