The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is the second book I’ve read for this week’s 1965 Club, hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. Like my first, Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Mark of the Horse Lord is described as a book for younger readers, although it doesn’t really feel like one. I have previously read two of Sutcliff’s adult books (The Rider of the White Horse and Blood and Sand) and I found this one just as beautifully written and with just as much to offer an adult reader.

The story is set during the time of the Roman Empire and our hero, the gladiator Phaedrus, is the son of a Greek wine merchant and his slave. The novel opens with Phaedrus, a slave himself, winning the Wooden Foil (and therefore his freedom from slavery) when he is victorious in a fight in the arena of Corstopitum, a town on the great wall built by Hadrian in what is now the north of England. His freedom is short-lived, however, when he is imprisoned after getting into trouble while out celebrating in the town, but this time he is rescued by a group of men who have noticed that he closely resembles their king and are hoping to persuade him to take part in a conspiracy.

Soon Phaedrus is heading north into what we now call Scotland, a land which at this time is home to both the Caledones (Picts) and the Dalriadain (Scots). The plan is for Phaedrus to impersonate Midir of the Dalriadain, who has been usurped by the Caledonian Queen Liadhan and blinded to prevent him from trying to rule. As he travels to the Antonine Wall and beyond, Phaedrus educates himself on the history and culture of his new people and comes to understand the significance of his new role as Horse Lord. But will he manage to convince everyone that he really is Midir – and who will win the upcoming battle between the Dalriads and the Caledones?

There was so much to enjoy about this book. I loved the descriptions of the Roman settlements along Hadrian’s Wall, including Corstopitum or Corbridge, as it is now known (I can recommend a visit to Corbridge Roman Town, run by English Heritage, if you’re ever in the area), and the contrast with the tribes in the north, where Roman rule hasn’t reached. I also found it fascinating to read about the differences in culture between the patriarchal Dalriads, whom Sutcliff tells us have ‘become a Sun People, worshipping a male God’ and the matriarchal Caledones who ‘had held to the earlier worship of the Great Mother’.

The plot was good enough to hold my interest to the end and made me think of other imposter stories I’ve read (such as The Great Impersonation and, in particular, The Prisoner of Zenda), but the setting, the time period and the themes it explores make it different and original. Also, without wanting to spoil anything, I thought the ending was perfect – both powerful and poignant. And yet, there was still something that prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I would have liked to. I’m not sure why, but I sometimes seem to struggle with books set in more ancient periods of history; I often don’t engage with the characters and storylines as thoroughly as I do when a book is set in slightly later periods. I’ve no idea why that should be, especially when an author writes as well as Rosemary Sutcliff does!

Katrina from Pining for the West has also reviewed The Mark of the Horse Lord for 1965 Club, if you would like to read a Scottish perspective on the book.

Blood and Sand by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff is probably best known as a children’s author, but she also wrote several novels for adults and Blood and Sand, published in 1987, is one of them.

Blood and Sand is based on the true story of Thomas Keith, a Scottish soldier serving in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Taking part in the Alexandria expedition of 1807 – an operation designed to capture the city of Alexandria in Egypt – Thomas is taken prisoner by Ottoman forces at El Hamed. Most of his fellow captives are sent back to Cairo as prisoners of war, but the Ottoman general in command of El Hamed has other plans for Thomas, who is ‘an extremely personable young soldier who speaks French, knows how to bear pain like a gentleman, and is the best swordsman and shot in his regiment’. Sent to train in the desert with the Bedouin cavalry, Thomas gradually rises through the ranks to enter the service of Tussun Bey, the Viceroy of Egypt’s youngest son, and to become Governor of Medina.

You may be wondering how it was possible for a Christian to reach such heights within the Ottoman Empire, so I should explain that Thomas makes the decision to convert to Islam. He does this partly because he is advised that it is the only way to progress in his military career but also because during his time as a prisoner he reads about and studies the Islamic religion and decides that conversion is something he feels comfortable with. However, it seemed to me that he made this choice a bit too easily and quickly; I would have found it more convincing if he had struggled with it more and if he had thought more often of the life he had left behind in Edinburgh and to which he would now never be able to return.

As far as I can tell – I had never heard of Thomas Keith until reading this book – most of the characters in the novel really did exist and most of the events described really did happen. This certainly seems to be true of the battles and military campaigns, but also two of the novel’s most exciting and memorable scenes: a dramatic duel and a desperate battle for survival on a dark turnpike stair. Of course, it’s Sutcliff’s skill as a writer which brings these scenes to life and fills them with suspense and tension, but it sounds as though the real Thomas Keith must have had a fascinating career and some hair-raising adventures. It’s surprising that he has not been a more popular subject for historical fiction.

In her author’s note Sutcliff says that the only area where she relies completely on her imagination is with the romance she creates for Thomas. This possibly explains why our hero’s love interest doesn’t appear until halfway through the book and only plays a relatively small role in the story. A much more interesting and moving relationship is the one between Thomas and Tussun, the Viceroy’s son – a relationship which develops over the years as Tussun grows from an impulsive, hot-headed teenager into a mature, well-respected leader and although it stops short of actual romantic love, is deeper than a normal friendship.

I enjoyed the first half of the novel very much, but later in the book Thomas and Tussun become embroiled in fighting against the Wahabis of Arabia and the heavy focus on military action was much less interesting to me than the more human story I had been finding so engrossing. That’s just my personal taste, though, and the battle scenes will probably appeal to other readers more than they did to me. I didn’t love this book quite as much as I’d thought I was going to at first, then, but I will certainly be reading more by Rosemary Sutcliff, having enjoyed both this one and The Rider of the White Horse.

My Commonplace Book: July 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

***

He turned his head to smile at her, apologetically; and his face was haggard in the firelight, so that suddenly she cared nothing for kings and wars, nor bishops nor the soul of man, nor for what Thomas did, only for what Thomas was; and she longed to fling her arms round him and hold him close because he was like a lute that was strung too tight.

The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff (1959)

***

Princes in the Tower

No banners were raised above the company and they wore no livery, anonymity as well as haste their ally this April morning. Where Watling Street cut its blade-straight course towards the Great Ouse, the last of the sentries who had ridden on ahead to silence any word of their coming joined the company and, together, the horsemen thundered towards the small market town of Stony Stratford and the object of their race: the boy who had become king.

Sons of the Blood by Robyn Young (2016)

***

Nash is a follower of the playwrights and knows their best bons mots by heart, but I am fascinated by the actors themselves. I wonder about the life behind the stage and the precariousness of it. The thought of it gives me a shiver. Perhaps my interest stems from the apprehension that actors, whose calling depends on looks and voices and bodies that cannot last, must confront the same hard laws of life that women do. When the brightness of our beauty dies, we are plunged into the dark.

The Revelations of Carey Ravine by Debra Daley (2016)

***

Lizzie Burns

And is it any different with love? Isn’t love the reverse side of the same medal? To love is to have, but rare does it happen that what we have is what we love. Love buys cheap and seeks to sell at a higher price; our greed is for gain that lies outside our reach. We desire those who don’t desire us in return.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (2015)

***

Before him lay the well-kept grounds, the clipped rose trees already beginning to put forth their glossy leaves, the panes of the glass-house gleaming like ice in the moonlight, the fountain where the water splashed in silver threads, hollow-eyed termini set between yew trees. The windows in the side of the pleasure house facing Desgrez were shuttered; he crept along, however, most warily; he did not know who was posted in the gardens nor what sentries might be placed about the house and grounds.

The Poisoners by Marjorie Bowen (1936)

***

Gondola

They glided away through the spangled water, and he filled his lungs with the haunting sea air. Other gondolas slipped past with lovers or merrymakers. A delicious languor filled the night, lapping of water, wandering of music. He felt a longing, sweeter than possession, for the indescribable, the unattainable. He would return here someday with her; he would occupy one of these palaces; they would live in terms of color – sapphire and silver – in terms of a casement open on the sea-scented night.

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger (1947)

***

“Oh, don’t worry, we’re still appalling know-it-alls. We dig things up, but then we photograph and catalogue, record and document, and as often as not we put things back. It’s not the finds so much as the findings. Not the objects but the stories they tell.”

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton (2016)

***

Magna Carta

Under the shade of the pavilion, he noted a table in readiness, stools around it, and parchment and pens and wax all ready, with clerks and knights waiting. They had at least the grace to stand when he entered and, without speaking, took the stool at the table-head. Before him lay the long charter. He knew it by heart, each clause of it had burned into him with rage while impotently he had listened to these rogues’ demands.

The Devil and King John by Philip Lindsay (1943)

***

Favourite books this month: Prince of Foxes and The Revelations of Carey Ravine.

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.”