A site for the study of twentieth century British children’s books, particularly historical fiction, and their relationship to social change
Clive Barnes

2007 Rosemary Sutcliff and the Cowboys: imperial frontiers in a mid-twentieth century childhood

Rosemary Sutcliff and the Cowboys: imperial frontiers in a mid-twentieth century childhood, 2007


In the real world of the 1950s and 1960s, there was a challenge to the political and social structures that had been based on ideologies of racial superiority. Independent African nations emerged, sometimes bloodily, from European colonial dominance; and the Civil Rights Movement made racial segregation in United States an international issue. Young people in Britain were unlikely to meet these contemporary struggles in children’s fiction. Nevertheless, the clash of imperial civilisations with indigenous peoples had a powerful hold over young people’s imaginations through the stories of the past they met in historical fiction or on film and television. Historical fiction is as much about the present as the past and, originally, these narratives were justifications of racial dominance and empire. By the mid twentieth century, however, they were an important site of ideological debate and change. This article, partly based on memories of teenage reading fifty years ago, considers Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman and Dark Age novels as a development of a wider imperialist narrative (linked to the popular western film), and as being shaped by contemporary challenges to racial ideologies. It argues that the novels, while retaining an imperialist view, invite sophisticated consideration of questions of race and civilisation and urge acceptance of a changing world.

This article was published in Pat Pinsent (ed.) Time Everlasting: Representations of Past, Present and Future in Children’s Literature, Lichfield: Pied Piper Publishing, 2007, pp.51-65.

This article explores my fondness in my teens for both Rosemary Sutcliff’s books and the Western stories that I watched on the TV and at the cinema. It considers Rosemary Sutcliff’s quartet of books about Roman Britain and its immediate aftermath in terms of its portrayal of ethnic conflict and the relationship of the coloniser and the colonised. It identifies themes in common between her books and contemporary Western films and, in particular, compares The Lantern Bearers (1959) with John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).

While I had no idea when I wrote this whether Sutcliff had any interest in the Western, Tony Bradman kindly emailed me after reading an abstract of the article to tell me that she was indeed a great fan. Subsequently I discovered a paper from 1971 where she writes about her love of Westerns, mentions two of the most popular TV series from the 1950s and 1960s, Laramie and The Virginian, and refers explicitly to the likeness between the Western and Eagle of the Ninth:

I believe most strongly that People Don’t Change, that under the changing surface patterns of behaviour, the fundamental qualities and emotions and relationships remain the same – very much the qualities and emotions and relationships, incidentally, that one finds in Westerns; which is one reason why I like Westerns, and why most of the people in my own books would be perfectly at home in Laramie, while I would have no hesitation in sending The Virginian north of Hadrian’s Wall to recover the Eagle of a lost Legion

Later in the same article she writes:

Legends and Westerns and my sort of historical novel are all alike in dealing with the big basic themes, comradeship between men, loyalty and treachery and divided loyalty, love and hate, the sense of property, revenge for slain kinsfolk; and of course the age-old struggle between good and evil.

(From Rosemary Sutcliff, History is People (1971), published in Virginia Haviland, Children and Literature: Views and Reviews, New York: Scott, Foreman and Co. 1973, pp 305-312, quotes from p. 308 and p.311)

Of course, the point that she is making here, that Westerns and myths and legends are the expression of universal human feelings and aspirations and a source of universal timeless stories, is not the same as the one I make in my article, where I link her work and the Western to an imperial narrative, which, while hardly timeless, does have a long history and takes a variety of forms. Nevertheless it strengthens my suspicion that The Searchers may well have had a direct influence on The Lantern Bearers.

Another aspect of her work which merits mention is the manner in which some modern archaeological thought has come round to a very similar way of thinking about early British history to the one that I have traced in Sutcliff’s work: that, in the long run, the continuity of ordinary working life and the meeting of cultures there has as much, if not more, significance than invasion, ethnic conflict and the political subjugation of one people by another.