The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Rider of the White Horse Rosemary Sutcliff is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years, having heard only good things about her work. I wasn’t planning to start with this particular book (The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset are the ones which have been recommended to me most often) but as I had the opportunity to read The Rider of the White Horse via NetGalley and have been enjoying other books set in the same time period recently, I thought I would give it a try.

Many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books were written for younger readers, but this is one of her adult novels, published in 1959. The ‘rider’ of the title is Sir Thomas Fairfax, also known as Black Tom, commander-in-chief of the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War, and the ‘white horse’ refers to his stallion, White Surrey. Sutcliff’s novel tells Fairfax’s story, from the events leading up to the conflict, to his exploits on the battlefield and the formation of the New Model Army. But this is also the story of Anne Fairfax, the devoted wife who – along with their daughter, Little Moll – follows her husband to war.

Written largely from Anne’s perspective, The Rider of the White Horse is a moving portrayal of the relationship between husband and wife. It’s not so much a sweeping romance as a quiet, poignant tale of a woman with a passionate love for a man whom she knows does not – and probably never will – feel the same way about her. Despite this, Anne wants to be there for Thomas whenever he needs her; she wants to help in any way she can. Following him on campaign, travelling from one town to another, a lot of time is spent anxiously awaiting news of Thomas, but Anne also has adventures of her own – including one episode in which she is captured by the Royalist commander, Lord Newcastle.

NPG D27098; Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Baron Fairfax of Cameron possiby by Francis Engleheart, after Edward Bower As for Thomas Fairfax himself, I have to admit that he’s someone I previously knew very little about. Although I’ve read other books (both fiction and non-fiction) about the Civil War, Fairfax tends to be overshadowed by Oliver Cromwell. In this novel, he comes across as a decent, humble, honourable man who loves his daughter and – even if he is unable to return her feelings – appreciates and respects his wife. He is portrayed very sympathetically, which I hadn’t really expected as from the little I’d read about him I had picked up a more negative impression. Of course, that could be partly because I tend to be drawn more to the Royalist side anyway (not for any good reason, I have to confess, but purely because from a fictional point of view, they seem more colourful and interesting). I have no idea how accurate this portrait of Thomas is – or how much of Anne’s story is based on fact – but I did like this version of both characters.

I’ve never been a fan of battle scenes as I often find them boring and difficult to follow. There are several in this novel and while I could see that they were detailed and well-written, they didn’t interest me as much as the domestic and family scenes. Luckily for me, there are plenty of these too. What I’ll remember most, though, is the character of Anne and her love for a man who is simply not able to give her what she wants, cherishing each moment of happiness, however brief and fleeting…“You could not hold a winged thing; you could not even perfectly remember it afterwards, for that, too, was a kind of holding.”

16 thoughts on “The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff

  1. Sandra says:

    I adored Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s books but I never read any of her adult works. I hope I’ll rectify that one day soon. Thank for this review – it’s spurring me on!

    • Helen says:

      Somehow I completely missed out on reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s books when I was younger. I’m hoping they’re the sort of books that can still be enjoyed by adults!

      • Sandra says:

        So many of the best children’s books can be enjoyed by adults – certainly be me at any rate! Not sure about Sutcliff’s children’s books. If you read one, I’ll be keen to hear whether it works for you!

  2. Pam Thomas says:

    Rosemary Sutcliff is one of my very favourite authors, and has been since I read ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ when I was about ten. I’ve always loved ‘The Rider of the White Horse’ and remember recommending it to one of my schoolfriends when we were in the sixth form – she was slightly bewildered, it wasn’t her sort of thing at all. I love the quiet realism of this book, combined with superb writing and, yes, historical accuracy – I went on to study the Civil War at university and pretty much everything in the book is true (including Anne’s capture). Fairfax is a more sympathetic figure than Cromwell – he drew the line at executing the king, and his wife actually turned up at the trial, veiled, and shouted in protest. Because he’d been opposed to the execution, and retired from public life during the 1650s, he was exempt from Royalist retribution when Charles II was restored in 1660 and lived quietly on his estates. The poet Andrew Marvell was his secretary. This is well worth a read, as are Rosemary Sutcliff’s other adult novels, ‘Sword at Sunset’ (for me, always, the definitive Arthur) and ‘The Flowers of Adonis’, which is set in Classical Athens and is about Alcibiades.

    • Helen says:

      I had a feeling you might have read this book, Pam. I’m pleased to hear that it’s historically accurate. I thought it probably was, but I couldn’t be sure as I just don’t have enough knowledge of the period. Rosemary Sutcliff’s other adult novels sound interesting and I’m looking forward to reading the two you mention. I would also still like to try The Eagle of the Ninth – I really don’t know why I didn’t come across Sutcliff’s books as a child!

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    How interesting – I didn’t know that Sutcliff had written anything about this period! Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Helen. Your review makes it sound very appealing. I have a couple of her Roman / early medieval books lined up but I might well hunt this down afterwards. When was it offered on Netgalley? I’ve been scouring quite closely in the last couple of weeks but didn’t spot this…

    • Helen says:

      I think it was on Netgalley a month or two ago – I have a bit of a backlog that I’m working through at the moment. It seems that Sutcliff has written about quite a range of different periods, although she’s most famous for her Roman and Arthurian books. I’m just sorry that I’ve never read any of her work until now!

    • Pam Thomas says:

      One of her children’s books is ‘Simon’, which is about the English Civil War, and first got me interested in the period.

  4. Yvonne says:

    I’ve only read one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels and that was The Eagle of the Ninth back in primary school. I had no idea that she had written a novel set during the English Civil War. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    • Helen says:

      I wasn’t aware until recently of how many books Rosemary Sutcliff had written and how varied they were! I was drawn to this one because I’m interested in the English Civil War, but her other settings do sound intriguing too.

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