Rating: 2 stars
I feel conflicted about this book. Perhaps my reason for reading it wasn’t a good one.
I chose it because I want to read more books by or about (preferably both) people who are differently abled. I did some searching around online and Rosemary Sutcliff’s memoir was mentioned a couple of times by a few differently abled writers, citing her as an influence on their decision to become writers and to write about disability.
I didn’t read any of Sutcliff’s books as a child, but from what I’ve read about her, she wrote historical fiction for children that often had a key character with a disability. She wrote what she knew about. As a child, Sutcliff had juvenile arthritis which affected her ability to walk, both through the illness itself and through the treatments she underwent. She knew that, although movement might be difficult, she was no different to other children.
I was looking forward to her memoir, which covers her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s and her adolescence in the 1940s, because I was interested to know more about Sutcliff’s experiences growing up in that very different age, and about how Sutcliff came to the decision to write books with differently abled characters. I had presumed that this is what the book would be about. I hadn’t anticipated that Sutcliff would treat her disability so incidentally.
Sutcliff didn’t actually say very much at all for the first half of the book, despite filling 70-ish pages with reminiscences. It was the literary equivalent of going round to the house of an older distant relative that you don’t know very well and listening to her talk about people and things you have equally no experience of. It was nice enough, but not very engaging. She didn’t paint very vibrant pictures of the people she knew or the places she lived.
I’ve read a fair few autobiographies. I enjoy them. Sometimes, though, I encounter an autobiography that isn’t very good. The author seems unable to write their own story. The people whose autobiographies I tend to read are usually successful in one creative sphere or another – literature, comedy, drama, painting. I usually like them or am interested in them as a person. And then occasionally I read their autobiography and am disappointed. Recently, I had that experience with Jo Brand and Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographies. Brand because she came across as a reluctant scribe and far from the witty raconteur I was expecting. Winterson because she was too bound up in her bitterness. I haven’t read any of her fiction yet, but I expect she does autobiography better when it’s fictionalised. I’m adding Sutcliff to the list of disappointments. Although I approached her memoir with no prior knowledge or fellow feeling for her, I was still disappointed by how dull the book was.
It didn’t help that I found it difficult to like Sutcliff. She came across as casually racist, in the way people of her generation think it’s okay to be because they ‘don’t know any better’ and ‘it was different in their day’. She also seemed weirdly misogynist. All her general references to people used ‘he’. Her few references to being a girl were about how boys had it better. This might have been true when she was a child, and it might have been unfair that boys were allowed to be more adventurous, but Sutcliff didn’t seem interested in how to make life more equally good for boys and girls. She came across as regretful that she wasn’t a boy. I’d have liked her more if she’d celebrated being female, rather than being huffy about it.
Things got more interesting in the book as her childhood progressed and she began to have experiences that were more meaningful to her than the dimly remembered events of childhood. There was more in the way of reflection on her life and the medical treatments she underwent. Perhaps the dullness of what went before can be explained by the reference she made to how she felt children with a disability are often unaware of the limitations it causes when very young:
…disabled children often have an odd unawareness or only partial awareness of how it is with them. They know that they cannot do certain things which other children can do. They know, as it were, in theory, but they have not yet got the full impact.
She drew on this in one of her children’s books, Warrior Scarlet, making the character Drem aware of his physical disability, but not how it would affect his ability to become a warrior himself.
Another bit of the book that engaged my interest and gave me pause was this paragraph:
…if it can be managed in any way, no child, I believe, should go to a special school who can possibly cope and be coped with in a normal one. A handicapped child who is going to grow up and live his or her life in the world of the unhandicapped will do so far more confidently and naturally if he shared the same school from an early age than if he emerges suddenly in his late teens from the sheltered and specialised environment into an open world which is strange to him.
This belief was based on Sutcliff’s experiences of being schooled at home by her mother and then later being permitted to go to a local school. It’s something that I agree with. I’d also say that the open world can be hostile as well as strange, and that shared schooling is a way to break down that hostility. When I was at school, there were no differently abled children in my class. Children with a disability went to Special School. I remember that the prevailing thought about disabled people was that they were people to be pitied and patronised, but not befriended. Language used to describe disability was pejorative. More than that, it was cruel. I think the lack of friendship with disabled children, the lack of opportunity for the rough edges of the unknown to be rubbed off in the rough and tumble learning of childhood, made that cruelty easier.
When Sutcliff began to describe her teenage years, and the isolation she felt as a result of people assuming she couldn’t live a full life, I started to get a sense of her frustration. I wondered whether that frustration might have fuelled her along the road to becoming a writer. I got a strong message that Sutcliff didn’t want to be treated differently to able bodied people, that she saw her disability as irrelevant to what she achieved, and saw herself as a normal child who happened to have mobility problems. What I didn’t get, and had hoped for, was a strong message that she wrote the books she did in order to make disability less of an issue and more mainstream.
Still, the conviction that differently abled people are no different to other people was a very positive message in this book, and a better one than the story of how one woman overcame her disability to become a successful writer that I had been presumptuously expecting.