- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

By Lorna Sage
Morrow, $24.95, 281 pages, illus.

When Lorna Sage died last year of emphysema at the age of 57, she was widely hailed as one of England's leading lights in the world of literary criticism. A star along with such colleagues as the late Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia, she (and her fellow luminaries there) were among the least insular of British critics. They actually made it their business to be aware of American, as well as English, literature and kept up with critical theories and practices across the Atlantic and the English Channel alike.
Her premature death was a great loss for literary scholarship and now, with the publication of this memoir winner of the 2000 Whitbread Biography Award which she struggled to complete in the throes of her final illness, we know that we have lost a gifted memoirist, a writer with a real aptitude for exploring and illuminating people and the past.
It is interesting to note how many readers on both sides of the Atlantic have chosen to see "Bad Blood" as a snapshot of a particular time in the 20th century, the era of World War II and the age of postwar British austerity. Certainly, it is replete with period detail: rationing, the wartime marriage of her parents, social upheaval, the establishment of Britain's National Health Service. Consider, for instance, Sage's description of her first school in rural north Wales:
"The further up the school you went, the less you were formally taught or expected to learn. There was knitting, sewing and weaving for older girls, who would sit out winter playtimes gossiping round the stove, their legs marbled with parboiled red veins from the heat. The big boys did woodwork and were also kept busy taking out the ashes, filling coke buckets and digging the garden. None of the more substantial farmers sent their children to Hanmer school. It had been designed to produce domestic servants and farm labourers, and functional illiteracy was still part of the expectation, almost part of the curriculum."
Lorna Sage has a sharp eye and a tart tongue, a gift for intelligent observation, and a talent for expressing herself pithily and passionately. It is precisely these qualities that elevate this memoir above most such exercises. And there are many little touches that are the hallmarks of a real writer writer, such as the way she subtly but decidedly ends one chapter by linking it to the subject of the next one. Done obtrusively, this could be an irritatingly rote mannerism: In the hands of a masterly writer like Sage it provides an additional pleasure to an already fluent and absorbing book.
But to see "Bad Blood" as a portrait of an era is, I think, to miss its central virtue. It is in a way no more typical of its time than "Wuthering Heights" is of the first decades of 19th-century England. Sage's earliest years were spent living with her mother and maternal grandparents while her father was away in the army during World War II. And her evocation of her grandparents' union is one of the all-time great portraits of a dysfunctional marriage.
Her grandfather was a histrionic, self-dramatizing Anglican parson with High Church leanings and a penchant for wine and women if not song. His wife loathed the physical side of life not merely sexuality but almost all other bodily functions as well. Indeed she and her daughter could only tolerate food when it was dainty, sugary, and preferably not prepared by themselves.
Some of the flavor of the grandparents' marriage is captured in Sage's epitaph for them at the end of the book: "Grandma died in 1963 and joined Grandpa in Hanmer churchyard. Shortly afterwards, the headstone fell over, doubtless because the gravediggers and masons had disturbed it, although I like to think she was at it, hammer and tongs, with Grandpa down below."
But long before then, Sage has struck gold in the form of frank diaries kept by her grandfather and subsequently annotated by her grandmother. They detail not only his discontent and posturing but also his affairs, notably with a local district nurse and then with a close friend of his own daughter. Grandma's comments are scathing "Here the fun begins" and "Love begins (fool)" and we learn that she evolved a modus vivendi that involved actual blackmail. Threatening to go to his bishop, she extracted from her husband cash payments he could ill afford and for which she in the end had little or no use.
Sage manages to make her account of this endlessly sticky, rather sorry situation consistently amusing, as in this description of the wronged wife and the mistress getting together years later for the latter to administer an insulin injection to the former: "So Hilda and MB were reunited daily, when MB would sterilize a big needle (this was before throwaway syringes, but Grandma insisted she kept a specially blunt one for her, briskly rub Grandma's soft, flabby arm with surgical spirit and plunge in the cruel point. After she'd gone, Grandma would complain that her treatment was 'rough' as was only to be expected of a woman so coarse (a very strong word back then)."
But when it comes to her own parents' surprisingly happy marriage, Sage is unexpectedly prickly and finds it hard, even with the passage of decades, to escape the feelings of hostility and exclusion which she describes having experienced so acutely as a child. Which brings us to the character of Lorna Sage herself, certainly the most problematic of all those who populate "Bad Blood."
If she is a merciless dissector of others, she certainly does not flinch from portraying herself as a willful, obstinate, maddening character, who for years found it almost impossible to learn to tell time and who always had great problems with numeracy.
"We'd been taught in Miss Myra's class to do addition and subtraction by imagining more cabbages and fewer cabbages. Every time I did mental arithmetic I was juggling ghostly vegetables in my head. And when I tried to think of minus one I was trying to imagine an anti-cabbage, an anti-matter cabbage, which was as hard as conceiving of an alternative universe." One sees here the workings of an original, questioning mind which looks beyond immediate tasks into a higher and more problematic realm.
But she must have been one of the most difficult children to raise and I doubt that even when writing this book, she was sufficiently aware of just how much trouble she must have been to her parents. Her account of the circumstances that led to her pregnancy and marriage at age 17 is unsparing in its detailing of what must have been one of the least erotic yet least immaculate conceptions ever. This too is key to her contrary nature: Certainly she was very unlucky, but she also tells us she had resisted any attempt to enlighten her as to the elementary facts of life, which might have helped her avoid this unfortunate development.
Yet for all her maddening qualities, Lorna Sage as revealed in this memoir is an attractive, compelling person whom we feel we have come to know. The book is marred by occasional points that strain credulity: Could British high school students in 1960 really have been assigned even the expurgated version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" as an examination subject? But this is a minor flaw in what is for the most part a model memoir. Lucid, intelligent, evocative, great fun to read, "Bad Blood" succeeds in bringing to life an unhappy family and its true story which is indeed stranger than most fiction.

Martin Rubin is a writer living in Pasadena, Calif.

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