Dress Down Sunday: Flame-Coloured Taffeta by Rosemary Sutcliff


published 1986   set in 1750

‘Two years ago when I was ten there was a gypsy girl came and danced in the tithe barn at harvest supper. She had a flame-coloured petticoat; silky— it made a rustling sound like taffeta— swirling out round her on the threshing floor; and all the lanterns were lit, and the fiddler playing, and stars seemed to be dancing too in the open doorway. And afterwards everything seemed dull and ordinary for a while, and there was not anything I wanted in the world so much as a flame-coloured taffeta petticoat. But nobody understood.’

‘Nobody ever does,’ said Tom Wildgoose, sadly. ‘And now that you are twelve and almost grown up, do you still want a flame-coloured taffeta petticoat?’

Damaris met his look gravely. ‘Yes. But I don’t tell people about it anymore. That is— I don’t know why I told you.’

observations:  In a touch of serendipity, I came across this book while looking for the flame-coloured marocain for yesterday’s entry, so downloaded it and read it. It seems rather an un-Sutcliff title in fact – The Lantern Bearers, Sword at Sunset and Warrior Scarlet are more like it. (Just reading the list of Rosemary Sutcliff’s many titles gives me shivers, because I loved her books when I was young, took them very seriously, endlessly searched for them in the library.) Silky Flame-Coloured Warrior wouldn’t quite have hacked it. She was always rigorous: this sounds frivolous. And the title does give away what is going to happen at the very end - even quite a young child reader isn’t going to be in much doubt. It’s a nice tale of smugglers and derring-do set in the countryside near Chichester, at a date you can calculate as 1750.

What’s intriguing is something that wouldn’t have occurred to me as a young reader: despite the historical detail, Damaris and her friend are from a certain era of children’s literature, in spirit the 1950s even if actually written at different dates – they are Arthur Ransome kids, Antonia Forest Marlows, with their birdcalls, their climbing out of the window, reserve about emotions, a sense of a very specific honour (which is frightfully important, but doesn’t rule out lying, ‘borrowing’, and cheating their elders), and even the much-prized house in the woods (like Enid Blyton’s and Monica Dickens’ children). These books cover many decades, but while clothes and language changed, the values of the children stayed the same.

There are some subtle touches: the man in hiding is given Don Quixote to read, emblematic of his own lost cause and wasted time, and he gives himself the nom de guerre Wildgoose. So we can guess maybe he’s Irish, though that’s never made clear.

It’s a good quick read, but not the best of her books – though perhaps better not to risk that by re-reading? Simon, set in the English Civil War, was my absolute favourite, but the Eagle of the Ninth books were excellent too.

More men on the run, similar era, here.

The pictures are obviously modern, and the skirts are vari-coloured, but seemed very much in the spirit of what Damaris describes. They were taken in Alaska by Frank Kovalchek, used with his kind permission.


  1. Do try rereading Sutcliff. I read some recently and found they stood up well. My husband didn't read them as a child, and reading them for the first time as an adult found them very enjoyable. There's no sex, of course, but there are deaths - happy endings are not guarantee.

    Her autibiography is worth reading too - I found it on ABE Books.

    1. Thanks Celia, yes I should. And I was just looking at her autobiog and wondering if I should buy it - you've inspired me. I'm sure they'll all turn up on the blog in due course.

  2. Replies
    1. Didn't read that one - but who could fail anyway with that story? I recently saw a stage production of it, Kneehigh Theatre Co, and it was one of the top 5 productions I have ever seen on any stage anywhere. I can see I'm going to have to get the Sutcliff version too...

  3. Moira - I can see what that taffeta would make such an impression. Those 'photos say it all. You make an interesting point about the kids' values, too. I remember reading books like that when I was young too. I wonder whether those values were deliberately woven through those stories. You've got me thinking, for which thanks.

    1. Thanks Margot: I'm fascinated by children's literature, and the way it transmits the values of the time, it's a really intriguing topic.


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