Friday, November 13, 2015

Flame-Coloured Taffeta, by Rosemary Sutcliff

A couple of weeks ago I worked as a chairperson for one of our voting precincts. One of the moms, while corralling the cutest little toddler, asked me "which Victorian novel I had brought with me this time." Upon some reflection I told her I hadn't brought any, but then, lo and behold, a recollection occurred to me, and I pulled out Rosemary Sutcliff's Flame-Coloured Taffeta and presented it for inspection.

She smiled. "I always look for it every year," she said, and then went off to vote. I had no idea it was a thing; I see from now on I have a reputation to keep up.

I didn't expect to read it either, because I had my daily NaNo goal to write. But later in the afternoon I was running dry of inspiration and wanted a break, so I opened it up. It hit all my especially warm and fuzzy spots: secret Jacobites on the run, sweet friendships, and an exciting late-night escape attempt. It's a deceptively slim little volume, with a deceptively colorful cover that would make you pass it by on first glance. But don't let its size fool you. It's another one of Sutcliff's masterpieces.

The Book
Damaris and Peter are used to keeping secrets. They have a secret hiding spot called Joyous Gard (or as Peter calls it, Tumbledown) where they keep hurt animals so they can recuperate. The grownups around them keeps secrets too. They live in the Selsey peninsula of England, in the area of Manhood, where every so often, a team of smugglers comes through with silk and brandy to take inland. Nobody ever tries to catch them.

One night Damaris hears shots, and the next morning she finds something much graver than a hurt animal to take care of. A smuggler lies bleeding in the woods, shot in the knee. Damaris and Peter take him, with the help of Genty the Wise Woman, to Joyous Gard to hide him. While he heals, a strong bond of friendship forms between them. But eventually Damaris has to face the biggest conflict of her young life: How can they find a way to help Tom Wildgoose escape from England? And what should she do if he turns out to be a spy threatening the English king?

My Thoughts 
It's charming, full of subtle beauty in its descriptive narrative, and the simple, yet passionate viewpoint of a child.
The first silver-gilt wash of morning was just beginning to lighten the sky behind the granary roof while the cart shelter beneath it was still a cave of darkness, and the dunghill cock who always roosted on the shafts of the haywain was crowing as though it was only because of him that the day was coming at all. The first babble of lambs was coming over the wall from the barn fold, and Sukie, who always grew very loving when she was going to have kittens, came wreathing and purring round Damaris's ankles. 
Believe it or not, Sukie's actions were some of my favorite bits. We had a kitty for many years, and the way she described a cat's actions--like the leg sticking straight up like a flagstaff while Sukie licked herself--brought back many warm memories.

Rosemary tells a simple, straightforward story, and adds a beauty and strength by teasing out accompanying details that make it as sharply vivid as one of the stars Damaris likes to count at night. There is really only one plot--how to heal and help the spy--with all the elements that bring the characters alive--Peter helping with the lambing, Shadow Mason's haunting refrain of "Spanish Ladies" and Lady the fox vixen--all tying in to help. I loved Lady fox with the hurt paw. But my favorite scene was when Damaris looked out the bedroom window and wished on seven stars for a flame-coloured taffeta petticoat. It's not that I believe in good luck charms, but there was a haunting, simple beauty in both the stars and the wish that gripped my heart.

Two things make this story one I would hesitate to give a younger child to read for themselves. First is the perennial problem of children having adventures while keeping secrets from adults. The example of bravery is slightly countered by an example of deceit that just isn't a good role model. The second is one rather disturbing episode with Ginty the Wise Woman, where she sends Damaris with a charm to threaten one of Tom Wildgoose's enemies. It's easily skipped, but all in all, this is a book I would prefer to read aloud to children, or give it to them after they've reached some level of adult discernment to judge between right and wrong actions.

In spite of these flaws, I deeply love Damaris and Peter and Tom Wildgoose, in the same way I love Portia and Julian from Elizabeth Enright's Gone-Away Lake, a book with similar flaws. They are real and brave, and if anything, they give children the imagination "I could be brave too" for the cause of taking care of someone else. Tom is a kind and gentle hero, a young man who is able to stop in the middle of grave danger and take the time to value two children he owes so much to.

I found this at my grandma's house while I randomly walked by a shelf of books. I'm so glad I did. It's one of those tales that stays with you and warms you whenever you think about it.

I'm going to have a lot of hard choices for narrowing down favorite book of the year. ;)


  1. Yay! I've always wanted to read this book (because of the luscious title!) but was never able to find a copy. I'll have to look on the Open Library out something!

    It's funny actually that we've both reviewed Rosemary Sutcliff books for young girls on our blogs this week :). Mine was THE QUEEN ELIZABETH STORY and I had some slight reservations about it too, but otherwise it was just gorgeous. I think you would love it!

    1. Yes, you must find it! You would like this one, I think. I enjoyed your review of The Queen Elizabeth Story! It looks like a fun book. Isn't her writing so good? :)

  2. This was fun to read today. =) I loved all the things you loved about it--especially Sukie. ^_^ <3 And Tom Wildgoose. And the flame colored taffeta.

    Thank-you for letting me read it. :D

    1. Sukie is a dear. ^_^ I'm glad you were able to read it yesterday. <3


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