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Lorna Sage’s Authority – Times Higher Education


“Openings bring out all one’s inhibitions”, Lorna wrote in her spidery hand on the first page of my doctoral thesis. In 1990, at thirty years old and finally getting round to university, Angela Carter suggested that I go Norwich to study with her “best friend”. It was good advice. I can’t imagine a teacher better-suited to my tastes and interests than Lorna, and because of her, I ended up staying through ten years and three degrees, eventually taking over some of the seminars she taught. Approaching my PhD panel, I had been worried about the beginning of my thesis, so I sent her a copy to look over. Her response was full of characteristic insight: she understood precisely all the difficulties and reservations in writing, yet encouraged you to go ahead, to start, somehow and somewhere, to have your say.

I first met her in the early Eighties. She was sitting at a kitchen table in North London with a group of confident, laughing women that included Carter, Grace Paley, and other writers and editors from Virago Press. There were a few men there, too, but the women coming together was the reason for the gathering, and they knew it, expressing it in the degree of attention they paid to one another, leaving the men to fend for themselves, skirting around the edges of the conversation. Looking back on that night, I see myself as a stroppy girl facing a group of older, much grander women who seemed to me to represent the new order. So I took them on, arguing with them about the degree to which their conversation – delivered so authoritatively on behalf of the sisterhood – neglected those working class, black and gay women still on the margins.

A decade later when I met Lorna again in Norwich she told me what she remembered of that night was how “bloody-minded” I had been, and I was left wondering about the meaning of her remark – whether or not this was a quality she admired. When I got to know her better, I saw that it was, and particularly so in women. But on reflection, I was right about the degree of ambiguity in her judgement, there was a measure of chastisement: because passion or bloody-mindedness was not enough, this needed to be coupled with intellectual rigour – as she demonstrated continually. I was wrong, however, about the extent to which Lorna had become an establishment figure. Her authority was undeniable but she retained the edginess of an outsider, an air of not being to the manner born, of someone who was (I think this was her favourite expression) making it up as she went along. I thought her an outstanding, often electric teacher: sophisticated yet sympathetic, she made ideas glamorous while never being in thrall to any one school of thinking. So I was amazed when another member of the faculty told me she would not make a good referee because by many people she was not considered “a proper academic”.

Lorna Sage, ‘Good as Her Word: Selected Journalism’, ed. by Sharon Sage and Vic Sage, 2004

Her concentration upon journalism over ‘scholarly research’ contributed to this myopia, and was in part responsible for the university’s tardiness in appointing her a professorship, despite her growing reputation as a literary critic. But what mattered to her was the quality of her work and she was not a snob about where it appeared. Indeed, writing in a democratic space and reaching a wider audience would have been part of the appeal. I remember her speaking in seminars of her admiration for jobbing writers like Anthony Burgess – who wrote to pay the bills, who supported themselves by living on their wits, who felt no contradiction in writing seriously and prolifically. In her obituary of Burgess she is approving of his disapproval of the “costiveness” of certain writers: Joyce, who Burgess much admired, was still “a scrounger” living off others, while Forster “could be relied upon to provoke scorn for several reasons at once: mystificatory reverence for Art, snobbish resentment of one’s audience, and a kind of stinginess with one’s talent”, which Burgess, she said, “seems Freudianly to have associated with anal retentiveness.”

Perhaps literary stinginess – the withholding of talent – seemed like such a sin to Lorna because experience had taught her the high price demanded for nourishing and developing it. “Think about the cost of exclusion” she scribbled in the margins of my PhD on Christina Stead. The solidarity she and Angela found among feminists in the Seventies and early Eighties was real, and reinforcing, but at the end of both their lives I think there was anger that despite advances made, they still found themselves out on a limb. “I don’t even get the bloody sympathy vote” Angela railed when, dying with cancer, she failed once again to be shortlisted for the Booker prize. And Lorna’s fury at dying prematurely seems to have re-ignited her sense of alienation, as if her body’s conspiracy was just the final twist in the world’s plot against her. Her autobiography reveals from the outset how much of an embattled outsider she felt herself to be.

When I first read drafts of Bad Blood I was troubled by what seemed a disproportionate sense of outrage in relation to what she had to overcome – there are many who struggled against harder odds. But I now think Lorna’s sense of being apart was inescapable, her anger entirely consonant with her understanding of what the plot meant: that being canny as a woman was what made you, in a sense, uncanny, homeless. And the cleverer you were, the further it put you beyond the pale. Like Yossarian in Catch 22 she took it extremely personally. Yet this was not a position she made capital out of. She had no time for the kinds of mysticism often generated in exclusion, nor for the performance of invalidity that infected the lives and sentences of many women writers and critics. What she admired in the women she wrote about – all of whom also struggled with the feeling of outlandishness, the inability to be fully representative as writers – was their refusal to be hemmed in by circumstance. In a typically acute review of Christina Stead’s work she wrote with admiration, “she was scornful beyond anything of poverty of aspiration…everyone should want elaborately and richly.”

Lorna Sage’s life and career seems exemplary, not only because she was a brilliant, stylish, unorthodox teacher, a generous supporter of her students and colleagues and a wonderfully perceptive editor of their work, but because of her determination not to be excluded. Like Stead, she would “not be fobbed off with less than the best.” The irony is that while she may never have felt herself a true insider, she was universally regarded as the head and heart of the department in which she worked, and her death leaves us all bereft. Perhaps a fitting tribute would be for us to become, as Lorna described Stead’s characters, “expert wanters”, demanding more of ourselves and of the world in which we live. Such a strategy, of course, involves the risk of self-exposure and rejection. But if carried out in good faith, it might lead instead to self-realization and liberation – the project upon which Lorna, in every word she ever wrote, was intent.

This tribute to Lorna was first delivered at her memorial service at the University of East Anglia, shortly after she died in January 2001. A different version appeared as ‘Why I Believe…Lorna Sage Inspires by Example’, in the Times Higher Educational Supplement on 19.1.2001.

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