The Woman Who Did

Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth-Century Women Writers

by Lorna Sage
London: Fourth Estate, 252 pp., £15.00

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…

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