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 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...
(The entire section is 1883 words.)