Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth-Century Women Writers
Lorna Sage, who died in January of last year, was known to a large British readership as a literary reviewer who, in the last years of her life, sick with emphysema, found the willpower and self-confidence to write a fascinating and best-selling autobiography. A smaller group would have been familiar with her work as an academic at the University of East Anglia. She also enjoyed a separate life in an unchanged part of Florence, where she and her husband rented a house from Harry Brewster, one of the last great characters of expatriate Tuscany, whose father was said to have been the original of Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady.
The house itself was modest, but it stands, with other houses, in a garden that has hardly changed since the days of Henry James, from which can be had one of the famous views of the city (it is a standard location for period films). Nearby is the studio of the nineteenth-century sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand. Not far away, in Bellosguardo, lived Violet Trefusis, daughter of the royal mistress Mrs. Keppel and lover of Vita Sackville-West, about whose fiction Sage wrote an appreciative-ish essay in Moments of Truth. It is not sentimental, I think, to say that if you wanted to experience the atmosphere Tchaikovsky evokes in his Souvenir de Florence, you could find it in the garden Sage knew from her terrace, and I mention this aspect of her life because it was important to her and because it contrasts so sharply with the childhood she describes in Bad Blood.
Many of her friends would have been surprised to see her in such a setting, but there was a side to her that enjoyed and was amused by a certain brush with high life—her private view of Florence, her public schoolboy husband (for as long as her second marriage remained happy, which it did for several years), her sense perhaps of having conquered the castle, however absurd the results might sometimes seem. Often, while reading her books, I have thought of that line in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Cirque d’Hiver” in which the speaker and the little mechanical circus horse, “facing each other rather desperately,” stare and say, “Well, we have come this far.” She had indeed come far, and with much effort.
In my first recollection of her, from the early 1970s, she is standing in front of my desk at the New Statesman, where she has delivered a review (probably something about Milton), doubled up with laughter like one who fears her bladder might burst. My last is of the opening moments of her funeral, when a curious and at first unidentifiable sound came over the crematorium loudspeakers, which turned out to be (her choice) the voice of the veteran Irish actor Cyril Cusack reading from Finnegans Wake—a joke which did little to relieve the distress of the occasion.
In between these two moments falls her career, in which she soon became well known as a leading book reviewer, especially for the Observer under the literary editorship of Terry Kilmartin. She was very clever, a notable beauty, and a feminist. One sometimes sees the expression “lipstick feminist” used to denote a woman of a new generation who, in contrast to the feminists of the Seventies, is happy to go for glamour. But this implication is unhistorical. Sage was always a lipstick feminist. A friend of mine, through whom I came to know her better toward the end of her life than I had before, gave her a nice set of makeup; Lorna tried every single shade of the eye shadows. She wore three- or four-inch heels, and when eventually the effort of getting about made high heels impossible she stopped wearing dresses and skirts at all, and stuck to trousers. In her teens, the photographs show her to have been dangerously beautiful, and one is not in the least surprised that the dirty uncle who made a pass at her compared her to Brigitte Bardot (a byword for loose morals), or that she responded by shoving him into a pond (he had called her a poor man’s Brigitte Bardot).
She was glamorous and a feminist. If the division among feminists in Britain was between the socialists and the radicals, Sage would have been, like her close friend Angela Carter, on the socialist side: the problem was with society, the problem was not simply with men. But she was capable of expressing extreme opinions.
She said, and thought, that realism was simply a way of keeping the working class in its place. I put it to her old friend Jonathan Raban that if this was what she thought, it was ironic that in the end her great success came with Bad Blood, which by her criteria is a realist book, being so strong on local and particular detail. Raban suggested that Bad Blood was perhaps realist with some complications—that is to say, the first person of the narrative ends by escaping; but in a realist narrative there is no escape from one’s circumstances. Realism in this sense suggests some story by Verga: in the end one is fated; one is bound to be, as it were, stabbed to death among the keening old women.
What was the alternative to realism? Fabulism is one answer, the kind of narrative that models itself on the fairy story or fable (as in the work of Angela Carter). A more idiosyncratic taste of Sage’s, but something which apparently meant much to her, was for Neoplatonism. It was her research into Neoplatonism which took her to Florence in the first place. Neoplatonist ideas amused her, and it might be that a narrative in which the protagonist reinvents herself and is therefore able to escape counted in some private way as Neoplatonist.
The story she tells in Bad Blood is set on the Welsh border, in a village called Hanmer, in what she describes as a “little rounded isthmus of North Wales sticking out into England.” The village was owned by a family called Hanmer who, Sage tells us, had come over with the Conqueror. Another source, not necessarily more reliable, tells us that the first of the Hanmers took the name in the reign of Edward I, eight kings later—but still, in the overall scheme of things, a long time ago. We are told by this same source that John Lord Hanmer, writing in the late nineteenth century, claimed that his family still held lands that had never been bought or sold—that is, their possessions derived from a royal grant in feudal days.
Here is a sample of John Lord Hanmer’s prose, describing the area in which Lorna Sage grew up: “Hanmer with its cup of springs, Bettisfield with its barley fields, Bronington wild and forestal, Tybroughton with its plume of firs, Willington spectatress of the hills, Halghton dweller in the clay.”1 These poeticisms are designed to evoke an unchanging landscape. But half a century later (and this is Sage’s social theme) all that rural life was on the way out. The “tied cottages” of the agricultural workers (the right to live in them was tied to the job: once you lost the job you lost the home), when they fell vacant, would be “promptly bulldozed, leaving only a lilac bush or flowering currant looking lost in the middle of an empty field to mark where someone’s garden had been.”
In other words, even the gentry have begun to take an unsentimental view of their centuries-old possessions, and to dismantle the economy of the small tenant farms. Agriculture, which had been a “reserved occupation” during the Second World War, had lost its protection, and was about to go through an upheaval of modernization and rationalization. Sage’s view of the world she grew up in is specific and unsentimental. In fact she relishes its unbucolic details:
For instance, each field’s crop was cut so as to leave a small plot of corn standing in the middle. Then, when the combine harvester had done thudding, everyone, the labourers’ families, kids and hangers-on, would converge on this corn island with hoots and yells, sticks and pitchforks, and murder the mass of voles, mice and rabbits that had taken shelter there as they made a last mad dash for safety. If you finished off a rabbit it was yours to take home.
This was in a period, remembered by all who went through it, when the disease myxomatosis was introduced in order to control the rabbit population:
The whole countryside stank for weeks of decomposing rabbit flesh, sweet and foul, and unforgettably disgusting. And everywhere on the roads and paths rabbits staggered about dying by inches, blind, their heads swollen and fly-blown, so that it was a kindness to kill them quickly. Those cruel harvest games were good practice, it was useful to know how to knock a rabbit on the head.
This moment in agricultural history is recorded in a poem by Philip Larkin, which reads:
Caught in the centre of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
Larkin’s poem was first published in 1954, the year after Sage recalls myxomatosis first appearing in Hanmer.
Bad Blood describes in detail a period and setting which will be familiar to many English readers who lived through something similar. What makes the book remarkable is the individual story she has to tell, and which she delivers with such glee. For while many of us may have grown up in vicarages where there seemed to be no money, and while we too heard talk of “dilapidations,” the diocesan funds required for the repair of our homes, or were sometimes spoken of in the north of England as “nesh” if we seemed to require more cosseting than a young person should, rather fewer of us experienced the kind of squalor that Sage evokes.
Most vicarages were neurotically respectable. They were centers of village life, meeting places for the Mothers’ Union, whose spare rooms gave lodgings to curates or paying guests. Sage calls her home “a secret slum,” only a small part of which was kept clean, just as only a small proportion of the bodies of its inhabitants—the visible bits—would be kept washed.
This filthiness is one of the first surprises of the memoir and one wonders at first whether the author is telling the truth. It does not seem typically middle-class, nor does it seem at all working-class, or like slum life (in which a premium was put on cleanliness as a token of respectability). Sage turns out to be describing an unusual social mix, in which her grandfather, the vicar (in whose company she grows up, her father being away at the war), is a thoroughly disgraced drinker and womanizer, loathed by her grandmother.
Her grandfather has had an affair with the district nurse (among other women, it turns out) and her grandmother has found incriminating diaries, by means of which she blackmails the grandfather into handing over the stipend, much of which she seems to squirrel away for her own dark purposes. If he does not hand over the money, she will report him to the bishop.
Hence the chronic lack of funds. The grandmother’s family (and here the specific nature of the class background lends credibility to what might otherwise seem a tall story) are somewhat grand storekeepers from South Wales, just elevated enough to expect “skivvies” to do the housework for them. Hence the dysfunction when skivvies are no longer available. Hence her mother’s “inability” to do effective housework or to cook.
Gothic would be the word for this kind of story if we thought that Sage was making it up, but in later life she persuaded her father to hand over the grandfather’s incriminating diaries (with her grandmother’s triumphant annotations). And, leaving aside a couple of passages in which a certain kind of feminist thinking seems to have been projected back into a child’s mind, Sage’s account is consistently convincing. One might not have to allow for exaggeration (although, on the question of what happened to the money, no vicarage in that period had money—we were all chronically short); one does have to take note of that glee with which the story is told.
One detail she passes over seems to me important. She gives a vivid and convincing account of the rotten local educational system, which she manages by a miracle to surf (her grandfather having introduced her to the joys of reading), but she never seems to have had a problem about the way she spoke. In England one spoke either with a local accent or what was called Queen’s English. Sage mentions that in her village they all spoke with a Shropshire burr (as opposed to a Welsh accent): one could on no account alternate between the two (in the way that a German can alternate between dialect and Hochdeutsch).
That is why further education, for a working-class child, was like a journey with no return: you would say goodbye to your background whether you liked it or not. For a middle-class child, the question of accents and class could prove agony. At exactly the time that Sage was, by my calculation, embarking on her Durham University education, I remember a Durham schoolmaster addressing my class on the subject of accents (he was charged with purging all dialect from our daily speech), and telling us, as an extraordinary novelty, that he had heard a man speaking “with an accent” on the radio who turned out to be—a professor! If Sage grew up with a Shropshire burr, she must have had it groomed out of her at the university—it must have been part of her transformation.
A transformation which very nearly did not take place, for she and her first boyfriend, Vic Sage, went somewhat further in their sexual experimentation than she had realized. Indeed she insists, perhaps convincingly, that she was quite unaware of having “gone the whole way,” and so she became pregnant while still at school. Abortion was not in question in that period, and the most obvious course would have been to have had the child, and given it away for adoption.
But here is where the story ceases to be “realist” in the sense Jonathan Raban suggested. For our heroine manages to insist that she will marry, and keep the child, and that she and her schoolboy husband will sit their university exams. And this utter novelty has to be accommodated. It fascinates me to find that while the younger women with whom she comes into contact (for instance the memorably horrible nurses) treat her as the proverbial fallen woman, there is an older generation of (unmarried) women who see the point, and assert that it is a splendid thing for her to marry and have a child and not let any of this get in her way. Such is the strength of the realism, and the strength of the memoir tradition to which this work belongs, for a fiction writer might well have not expected such a distinction between the age groups.
She goes to Durham and thinks she has flunked her interview, but it turns out that she has won a scholarship and that the college has altered its rules in order to let her in. The photograph on page 277 showing the two Sages on their graduation in 1964, with their daughter, both of them with first-class degrees, appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail. If the issue, for the original Woman Who Did, was how to pluck up courage to leave husband, child, and home, what Lorna did was demonstrate that one could have it all. What she did next has been alluded to.
She and her husband went, via Birmingham, to the University of East Anglia. In due course they split up, I believe amicably. Lorna was very much a figure on the London scene, hard-drinking and hard-smoking, hard-working too. Her journalism did not come easily to her, but she is much better as a writer when talking to the general public than when addressing anything that has a hint of academe. Indeed, Women in the House of Fiction,2 which was written partly in frustration at not having yet been given a university chair, is a much less good book than the posthumous Moments of Truth, much of which is composed of introductions to reprinted classics. It is in the latter book, as well, that we see her aware of the woman writer working against the deadline of mortality—her sense of her own mortality showing here in a way that it does not show in Bad Blood. Yet Bad Blood was written by a woman who spent a decade expecting to die soon, and when it came out it surprised and delighted her colleagues. However much we value Lorna as an essayist, we expect that in Bad Blood she will turn out to have written a classic, and that it will stand in relation to her other work as Edmund Gosse’s incomparable Father and Son stands in relation to his.
Memorials of the Family and Parish of Hanmer, by John Lord Hanmer, quoted in The Garden Book of Sir Thomas Hanmer, with an introduction by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde (London: Gerald Howe, 1933, reprinted Mold, Clwyd: Library and Information Service, Clwyd County Council, 1991), p. xii. ↩
Women in the House of Fiction: Post-War Women Novelists (Routledge, 1992). ↩