Rosemary Sutcliff on Learning to Read

It seems to me now surprising that with so much else going on, I was also having lessons. Or more truthfully, sitting through lessons with practically nothing to show for them afterwards. That was not my mother’s fault. She tried so hard; she had begun trying when we first went to Sheerness, and had been at it ever since. Actually, I had absorbed quite a lot. Under the heading of General Knowledge, I think I would have done quite well in a TV quiz. I knew the meaning of the three white bands round a sailor’s collar, I knew the proportions of an iceberg above and below water, and the name of Apollo’s mother. From a lovely book about a little boy going on a voyage round the world with his toys, which I had on long loan from grown-up cousins (very long loan; I have it still) I had accumulated quite a lot of geography. From Flower Fairies of the Seasons I had gathered nearly as much botany as I have now; and I seldom find myself at a loss where flowers and trees are concerned. I had a smattering of child’s-version history from Our Island Story, in which Queen Boadicea rebelled against the Romans because they had beaten her and been rude to her daughters. But I could add two and two together three times and get a different answer each time. And I could not do the one thing on which everything else depended.

I could not read.

Neither could Rudyard Kipling until he was nine years old; but neither my mother nor I knew that at the time; and my mother was at times near to despair. My failure really was her fault, for the odd reason that she herself read too well and too willingly. I have noticed that a child who has a willing adult to read to him is often late in learning to read to himself, simply because, when being read to, he can cope with stories well in advance of those he could read for himself; and so learning to read means, in an odd sort of way, a step backwards. My mother started to read to me when I was very young indeed. She read aloud beautifully and never got tired. and she would never, from the first, read anything that she could not enjoy herself, which cut out all the poor quality writing which every right-minded child loves when he can get it. Her only concession was one weekly comic, Rainbow. But apart from that, I was reared on a fine mixed diet of Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, Dickens, Stevenson, Hans Andersen, Kenneth Grahame, and Kipling— especially Puck of Pook’s Hill, whose three magnificent stories of Roman Britain were the beginning of my own passion for the subject, and resulted in the fullness of time in The Eagle of the Ninth. Hero myths of Greece and Rome I had, in an unexpurgated edition which my mother edited herself as she went along, and Norse and Saxon and Celtic legends. There were Whyte Melville’s The Gladiators and Bulwer Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii and Weigal’s Egyptian Princess; for my mother loved historical novels— history of any kind, though her view of it was always the minstrel’s rather than the historian’s. 

When I was about six she decided that the time had come for me to learn to read. And that was when she made her mistake. Instead of merely sitting me down in front of Peter Rabbit, The Secret Garden, or The Jungle Books and telling me to get on with it, she provided a dreadful book about a Rosy-Faced Family who Lived Next Door and Had Cats That Sat on Mats, and expected me to get on with that. I was outraged— I, who had walked the boards with the Crummles, and fought beside Beowulf in the darkened Hall of Heriot. I took one look, and decided that the best way of making sure that I should never meet the Rosy-Faced Family or any of their unspeakable kind in the future was not to learn to read at all. So I didn’t, and my mother never quite had the hardness of heart to stop reading to me. We had lessons and lessons and lessons; and we got practically nowhere.

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From a tattered old volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales passed round among us, we learned to read, even I, at long last, discovering suddenly what the mystery was all about. I have no recollection of the actual process; I do not know how or why or when or wherefore the light dawned. I only know that when I went to Miss Beck’s Academy I could not read, and that by the end of my first term, without any apparent transition period, I was reading, without too much trouble, anything that came my way.

Rosemary Sutcliff from her memoir of childhood, Blue Remembered Hills

This is a delightful memoir. Sutcliff’s description of her mother’s travails in trying to teach her to read is all too familiar to this homeschooling mother. But I also love the glimpses into her earliest reading life, the books that formed her, and this lovely literary world she shared with her mother.

One Response to Rosemary Sutcliff on Learning to Read

  1. Stephanie September 29, 2020 at 7:09 pm #

    Yes, I loved Blue Remembered Hills too. Another wonderful account of early home schooled education that I’ve just read is Pearl S Buck’s My Several Worlds. She grew up in China at the beginning of the twentieth century in a missionary family. Again, loads of Dickens. Speaking of Dickens, another fascinating book I’ve just read is Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose.

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