Lorna Sage was considered by many to be a “lipstick feminist,” an academic who wrote perceptively on women’s literature and advocated intellectual and social equality for women, but who also refused to reject the typically feminine accoutrements of make-up, high heels, and beauty. James Fenton’s essay on Bad Blood in The New York Review of Books, for instance, was not so much a review of the book as his own memoir of Sage’s enormous personal charm and attractiveness. To more radical feminists, who regard such qualities and habits as signs of complicity in patriarchal oppression, Sage might have appeared a sellout; as her memoir of a truly dysfunctional childhood in North Wales in the 1940’s and 1950’s shows, however, Sage came by her orneriness naturally, growing up in a family that refused to conform to standard social roles yet also refused to rebel by merely reversing those roles.
Although the memoir is narrated through Sage’s own experience, the book is divided into three sections focusing successively on her grandparents’ marriage, her parents’ marriage, and her adolescence culminating in her own marriage. These divisions also correspond to temporal and geographical eras in Sage’s life. As a small child during World War II, she, with her mother, lived with her mother’s parents in the Hanmer vicarage while her father was in the army; after his return and the death of Sage’s grandfather (and thus the loss of his house, since it was attached to the church living and therefore was passed on to the next incumbent), the family moved to a brand new housing estate on the edge of the village; finally, during Sage’s teenage years, when she was attending school in Whitchurch, just over the border in England, the family purchased a home nearby. Superficially, the narrative appears to be merely an account of the life of a decidedly eccentric family, but as it nears its conclusion it becomes clear that Sage’s purpose all along has been to explore the different ways in which couples may deal with the vicissitudes that life hands them.
The most outrageous characters are Sage’s grandparents. They are first presented through the memories of Sage herself, a child who sees no need to delve into the reasons why family members behave as they do because family is a given. Her grandparents lived in a state of constant war, marked by “murderous rows” when they were still talking to each other, nonstop vilification to anyone within earshot after direct communication had ceased. Grandpa bore a scar on his face from the time his wife had gone at him with the carving knife when he came home drunk. Grandma refused to interact with anyone in the village; when the doorbell rang, she would scuttle into her own room while her daughter frantically, futilely tidied the visible sections of the house and then led the caller to Grandpa’s study. Both of Sage’s grandparents felt exiled in Hanmer, her grandfather because a small village in Flintshire offered no scope for his intellectual talents, her grandmother because a small village in Flintshire offered none of the creature and social comforts she had enjoyed growing up.
Outweighing the grandparents’ intellectual mismatch was their sexual mismatch. Sage comments that her grandmother
thought men and women belonged to different races and any getting together was worse than folly. The “old devil,” my grandfather, had talked her into marriage and the agony of bearing two children, and he should never be forgiven for it. She quivered with rage whenever she remembered her fall.
Even more unforgivable was his infidelity. Years after the deaths of...
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both grandparents, after the death of her own mother, Sage asked her father if the family legend were true, that her grandmother had blackmailed her grandfather into turning over a large part of his stipend—so much of it that the family could not afford to keep the house in anything more than minimally livable condition—by threatening to turn over to the bishop certain damning diaries of his. Sage had assumed that this story was simply part of her family’s self- aggrandizing Gothicity. Much to Sage’s surprise, her father confirmed that it was true: He had the diaries. Their entries reveal the story of Grandpa’s affair with Nurse Burgess, begun in the months when he lived in Hanmer alone, before his wife and daughter joined him from St. Cynon’s in the Rhondda, his previous living. The affair continued even after the family was reunited and eventually came to light when Grandpa, laid up with a leg injury, used the nurse’s visits to his very bedroom as a cover for their liaisons.
Having alienated his wife, Grandpa proceeded to alienate his daughter by having an affair with her best friend, Marjorie. The intensified fighting that ensued from the discovery of that affair proved so distracting that Sage’s mother was able to slip through her own little rebellion in the form of dating and eventually marrying the local haulier’s son, a young man with brains and ambition but decidedly lower on the social scale than the vicar’s daughter.
Whereas Sage’s grandparents to a certain extent mirrored the social chaos and economic depression of the 1930’s, Sage’s parents made their best effort to accommodate the stricter mores of social conformity of the 1950’s. After leaving the vicarage, the family settled in a council estate:
My mother . . . had mysteriously forgotten how to ride a bicycle now that they had a home of their own. . . . But her new- found helplessness didn’t seem as odd as it might have, since this was, of course, the time when married women, having been sent back home en masse, were encouraged in every possible way to stay there—first demobilized and then immobilized. . . . My mother’s acquired ineptitude fitted this post-war pattern. And she did, as the propaganda said, try to turn herself into a housewife, although she was very bad at it. Quite how bad only became clear once we’d moved into the council house . . . she had a kind of genius for travesty when it came to domestic science.
Years of hopeless rearguard action against the “Gothic grime and disorder” of the vicarage had ingrained in Sage’s mother a kind of learned helplessness regarding housework; her culinary skills were even more useless. Furthermore, she inherited her mother’s dogma that a pride in housework was a sign of a “coarse-grained nature.” The increasing postwar availability of convenience foods and labor-saving devices was a godsend to her. Sage perceptively notes that her parents’ relationship worked because each bolstered the other’s psychological needs: Her mother’s helplessness allowed her father to show off his competence, while her father’s bent for bossiness gave her mother the attention and support she had never received from her parents, wrapped up as they were in their all-consuming hatred. Nonetheless, their mutual dependence entwined them so tightly that there was as little space for Sage and her brother in their parents’ emotional world as there had been for Sage’s mother and uncle in their parents’ marital war zone.
Sage, meanwhile, had grown into an intellectually precocious troublemaker. The village school was dedicated to the proposition that no one who lived in a backwater like Hanmer was ever going anywhere where education would be needed; Sage had acquired a taste for reading from her grandfather, and the unexpected side effect of a case of chronic sinusitis was permission to stay up as late as she pleased at night, reading whatever she could get her hands on. Sage passed her eleven-plus (the qualifying examination for grammar school, potentially leading to university) and was enrolled in Whitchurch Girls’ High School.
Grammar school was enlightening for Sage in many ways. The shadow of her family’s eccentricity was less eclipsing in the new environment. Teachers who were actually dedicated to educating their students gave validity to Sage’s “private currency” of reading. Above all,
Latin, the great dead language that only existed in writing, would compensate for my speechlessness, vindicate my sleepless nights and in general redeem my utter lack of social graces. Latin stood for higher education . . . it was the sign of being able to detach yourself from here and now, abstract your understanding of words, train your memory, and live solitary in your head with only books for company. So it was meant to be hard, but I found it wonderfully easy, for just those reasons. I fell in love with Latin. It was the tongue the dead spoke, ergo Grandpa’s language, of course.
Adolescence also meant boys. At her very first dance, Sage found herself, to her dismay, monopolized by “Victor Sage, his mother’s pride but no-one else’s”; encountering him again later in the year, Sage, convinced that he was hardly boyfriend material, made him her friend. She discovered that his family was as mad as hers: His father (also from South Wales, indeed from the next valley over from Tonypandy, Grandma’s home) was a paranoid schizophrenic convinced that he was receiving secret messages from some Alien Command. Companionship turned into sexual exploration, and although Sage did not admit to herself what was happening, at the age of sixteen she found herself pregnant. She had proved herself her grandfather’s progeny to the core.
This was an era when girls with children did not go to university; reproduction condemned them to a life of the body rather than the mind. Convention dictated that Sage be immured in a Home for Unmarried Mothers until she gave birth to a child who would be promptly adopted while she returned home to disgrace and a job as a typist, if she were lucky. Vic, for his part, contemplated running away to sea. Instead, the two decided that they would marry, have their baby and, by hook or by crook, get themselves into university. Sage hid her pregnancy for one term of school, the two were married at the Christmas holiday, and Sage gave birth to a daughter shortly before she was scheduled to sit for her A-levels, the examinations that would qualify her for university. She had to fight the nurses to be allowed to leave in time, but by this time it was clear that Lorna Sage was going to live her life the way she wanted. The young couple managed both to be accepted at the University of Durham, while their daughter, Sharon, was cared for by Sage’s parents.
In some ways, Sage can be seen as a predecessor of the late twentieth century Supermom, the woman who has it all, family and career, refusing to make an either/or choice between intellect and reproduction. Yet it is difficult to see Sage as a paradigm for anyone’s life but her own, and perhaps this is, indeed, the ultimate goal of feminism.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 289 (April, 2002): 137.
Los Angeles Times, April 15, 2002, p. E3.
The New York Review of Books 49 (June 13, 2002): 21.
The New York Times, March 29, 2002, p. E42.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (April 21, 2002): 12.
The New Yorker 78 (April 1, 2002): 93.
Publishers Weekly 249 (January 21, 2002): 75.
The Times Literary Supplement, September 21, 2001, p. 28.
The Washington Post Book World, March 24, 2002, p. 1.