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Favourite Childhood Books

March 10, 2017


Most of us, I’m sure, will have a favourite childhood book, one that we read to again and again, and mine was The Armourer’s House (1951) by Rosemary Sutcliff. I first read it when I was eight, the same age as its heroine, Tamsyn Caunter, and, not only did it speak to me, I also loved C. Walter Hodges’ evocative illustrations.

The author, Jacqueline Wilson, once wrote: ‘People don’t like to think that children have deep emotions and fears, but they do. For me, being a child was a startlingly intense time.’ And this, I think, is what Rosemary Sutcliff was supremely gifted in portraying.

The cover of ‘The Armourer’s House’. you can see how carefully I have looked after the book.

The Armourer’s House is set in the 1530s, when Henry VIII was king. This was the Age of Discovery, and the orphaned Tamsyn’s much-loved uncle, Martin Caunter, a Merchant Venturer in Bideford, Devon, builds ships and trades with the New World. But Tamsyn can never sail with him as she longs to do; she is only a girl. The story opens when her grandmother dies and Tamsyn has to leave all she loves to live with her unknown cousins in London.

Rosemary Sutcliff herself had a difficult life. Born in 1920, she contracted Still’s disease when very young and became seriously disabled. Her childhood was a lonely one at home with her dominating and possessive mother, while her father was at sea. She spent much of her childhood in hospital and her constantly interrupted schooling ended when she was fourteen.

‘Billingsgate Quay’. Aunt Deborah (with hat), Tamsyn and Beatrix go shopping. Note the ship’s crane in the background.

The Armourer’s House is Rosemary Sutcliff’s third book. Later, she called her early children’s books ‘too cosy and too sweet,’ a comment echoed by later critics. If that is true, then why did various episodes always make me cry? ‘Cosy and sweet’ was not what my eight-year-old self thought.

There are a number of episodes of almost unbearable poignancy; as when Tamsyn says goodbye to her childhood home and Sibbly the Cook, ‘now crying in the back kitchen with her apron over her head.’ I really felt for Tamsyn as she ‘managed not to cling to Uncle Martin when he stopped hugging her and lifted her up to the pillion saddle’ of the horse belonging to her unknown Uncle Gideon, the armourer, who will take her back with him to London.

I just loved the tall Tudor building with the upper floors sticking out over the lover ones. Note the helmet over the door to indicate that this house was where armour was made.

Rosemary Sutcliff gets across the trauma of Tamsyn’s heart-break, her homesickness, her bravery and her utter loneliness. By the time they get to London, ‘she was so stiff and cold and tired and unhappy that she hardly knew where she was.’ This, for me, has the ring of absolute truth; Rosemary Sutcliff, had been there, she knew what she was talking about. It still makes me cry.

And what Tamsyn thinks of her new home, with her four new cousins, and nowhere she can be private, also rings true. ‘She wasn’t used to living with a family at all and there were a lot of things about that she hated.’ Like having to share a bed with Beatrix, who’s three years older; like not being able to be alone; and she can’t even cry herself to sleep because Beatrix would know about it. ‘Cosy’ it isn’t.

Tamsyn and Piers have a make-believe adventure fighting a Spanish galleon

Walter Hodges’ illustrations, too, are an absolute delight. I loved the meticulous details of life in Tudor London – later, I realized that he’d been studying Wenceslas Hollar’s engravings of London before the Great Fire of 1666. They complemented the book perfectly and they, too, became part of my inner landscape.

The Armourer’s House helped to foster my love of history and of art, and was a huge support to me, emotionally. I have much to thank Rosemary Sutcliff for.

Do you have a favourite book?

Illustrations from The Armourer’s House’ by C Walter Hodges






5 Comments leave one →
  1. Buzz About Books permalink
    March 10, 2017 7:21 pm

    A really interesting post and what Fantastic illustrations! I haven’t really decided on what was my favourite book when young, but I loved “Ballet Shoes”, “Swallows and Amazons” and other books in that series. The only historical story I can remember was “Shadow of the King” by Frank Cox. I was also introduced to quite a few French stories. “Les Malheurs de Sophie” was about a naughty cousin visiting practically perfect cousins. I quite liked naughty Sophie. Odette Elliott

  2. Rachel Summerson permalink
    March 10, 2017 10:27 pm

    Thank you for your comment, Odette. I, too, loved ‘Ballet Shoes’, and, in a way, it counted as Historical for me. Though it was not, of course, a historical when it was first written in 1936.

    I hated ‘Swallows and Amazons’! Getting cold and wet in boats was my idea of hell. Some well-meaning aunt gave me a copy for Christmas and it said on the back, ‘If your child doesn’t love this book – send for the doctor’! I thought they meant it – so I never dared say that I didn’t like it – so I kept getting given other A Ransome books!

  3. Buzz About Books permalink
    March 11, 2017 11:56 am

    A very interesting post, Rachel, which made me want to read this book!
    If I had to pick just one book that I read and re-read I guess it would be “Little women”. But my main memory is of consuming books by the yard (or two at a time which was all my library ticket allowed). I chomped my way through the collected works of Enid Blyton and a series called “The Bobbsey Twins” by Laura Lee Hope. Recently I found one of the Bobbsey Twins books in a flea market, and it produced in my stomach exactly the same pop of excitement and relief at ‘acquring’ a new title that I used to have in the junior school library way back then.

  4. Rachel Summerson permalink
    March 11, 2017 6:59 pm

    Thank you for your comment. I, too, loved ‘Little Women’ and the others in the series.

    And I do agree with you about borrowing library books! I loved Elizabeth Goudge, Joan Selby Lowndes, and Lorna Hill’s ballet books.

    There were a lot of 19th century children’s historical novels at home – like ‘Children of the New Forest’ and ‘Kidnapped’ which I also enjoyed.

  5. Buzz About Books permalink
    April 8, 2017 2:49 pm

    I loved Rosemary Sutcliffe as a child and her name still has the power to thrill me. I think she wrote so convincingly about other periods in history that she allowed me to fulfil a very important fantasy of mine, namely to travel in time.

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