Quasi virginal

One thing the reader of Bad Blood can never forget is that its author, Lorna Sage, became a professor of English literature at a leading British university. This was no mean feat for a child of the dying rural regions of Wales. On the other hand it was possible for Sage, the mother of a child conceived out of wedlock to a teenage girl, to achieve this career success. If Sage had been half a generation older, she would have been condemned to obscurity. Sage was a fighter. She fought a winning battle because the rules of the fight had changed. Sage was one of the first victors over class, sex and prudery. She was an early pioneer, but unknown and barely acknowledged by Sage, others had partially cleared her path. If I have a criticism of this thoroughly engaging book, it is that the adult Sage, so relentlessly analytical about the causes of the discontents of her strange family and of the decaying condition of rural Wales, chooses not to analyse her own escape from dull, untutored obscurity.

Here are the opening lines:

Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path and I would hang on. He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much. I was a sort of hobble; he was my minder and I was his.

Always a tough admission for a bibliophile to make – that you failed to complete a well-regarded work of literature. Especially when you can nevertheless understand why it’s had such recognition. Lorna Sage’s insight is piercing and merciless. She digs deeply through layers of dysfunction with an analytical studiousness usually reserved for the anthropologist or historian. Her grandfather’s diary, the story of his rise and fall as vicar and various adulteries, is thrown open to the world, his behavior and its ramifications carefully dissected by granddaughter’s pen. She’s so brutally honest you can’t help but wonder how her family reacted to the very public revelations of Bad Blood.

I actually enjoyed Part 1, which covers Sage’s early childhood in Hanmer when she and her mother lived with her maternal grandparents. (Quite frankly, I had no idea there were rednecks in Wales.) As Sage herself recalls, her time in Hanmer had a distinctly Gothic feel. The genteel poverty of the ancient vicarage, set amid the dirt paths and tumble-down farms of an isolated village, is somehow timeless. “Perhaps I really did grow up, as I sometimes suspect, in a time warp, an enclave of the nineteenth century?” Sage muses. “Because here are the memories jostling their way in, scenes from an overpopulated rural slum.” Roughly half the section is taken up by the aforementioned diary, which Sage presents as the chronicle of the “original sin” that helped destroy her grandparents’ marriage and forever clouded her mother’s relationship to her father. Under the roof of the decaying vicarage, skeletons lurked in the dark recesses of the musty closets and worked their dire influence on several generations of impoverished aristocrats.

I love Gothic literature.

Following both her grandfather’s death, Lorna, her parents, little brother, and grandmother left the vicarage for a brand-new “council house.” It was then that the story lost what had made it so interesting (for me, anyway). We have departed the quaint Welsh village and landed in Levittown. “My parents, though, were moving into a new council house up the lane from Hanmer, a house designed for the model family of the 1950s ads: man at work, wife home-making, children (two, one of each) sporty and clean and extrovert.” It was certainly inevitable: the Sages have progressed from the enduring folkways of Hanmer to the American-style twentieth century. And certainly, many readers Lorna’s age have identified strongly with this aspect of her memoir. Says one Amazon UK reviewer:

Wickedly funny in parts, this book also speaks for a generation of women born in the Forties, who unknowingly were part of a huge social experiment. Unlike many of our mothers who left school at 14, or were educated at home by private tutors, we all went on to university, armed with our S-level distinctions and County Major scholarships, under the aegis of a visionary Labour Government. Many of us took the academic route (like Sage): Firsts, PHds, university lectureships. Others had equally creative lives. My friend, Gail Bracken, and I were the only pupils in our village school to pass the 11+ and go on to the A-stream of the local grammar school. Like Sage, we studied Latin, played hockey and read voraciously. The opportunities ahead of us seemed limitless. Sage’s intelligence, resilience, beauty and courage shine out from every page of this haunting, atmospheric, almost hallucinatory piece of writing. Brilliant and brave.

The impression I get reading reviews online is that many people saw their own childhoods reflected in Lorna Sage’s. For me, however, it just got boring. These are ordinary people living in an ordinary suburb. I couldn’t bring myself to care all that much.

The second aspect of my enjoyment is perhaps more of an academic one but I loved the way she captures the complex interplay of the individual and the social in making up identity. Here we have three generations, all extremely relevant to each other, and there’s a wonderful cultural richness in her accounts of what it was like to live in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Family, church, school, community, friends – they all work together to construct that complex subjectivity.

From the perspective of psychology, and psychodynamic psychotherapy in particular, the negotiation of identity and the social and individual construction of subjectivity is an immensely fascinating subject. The cultural imperatives of the time meant that grandfather and grandmother were both trapped in what we would stereotype as a loveless marriage unless he was prepared to give up his position at the vicarage and she was prepared to give up her relative comfort. He turned to his vices (women, smoking, drinking perhaps) while she made do with her own sacraments of ‘a toasted teacake and a cup of tea’ and blackmailing him to support her movie-watching habit.

The second generation, LS’s mum and dad, experience far greater freedom but are also constrained by class and opportunity and circumstances. Interestingly, Lorna’s mother tastes a bit of freedom and empowerment during the war years and then is forced back into a more subservient role behind Lorna’s dad, who is both admirable and slightly pathetic with his war record and his own struggling business and his attempts at being in control.

The third aspect of Bad Blood that I loved was the way she brought in her love of literature, and combined it with gender politics. To read, and to be intelligent, and to love books as a teenage girl at that time was to marginalise yourself and that marginal position was compounded by her own fall from grace. Falling pregnant at the age of sixteen (which still somehow manages to retain an air of innocence about it) makes her an outsider, from where she gets to observe herself and her surroundings with a wonderfully sharp (and witty) eye.

And it is LS’s very disgraced nature that allows her to identify with all the other rebels in the world of literature. LS lists Milton’s Paradise Lost as one of the works that influenced her the most.

Another theme that I would pick out is that of conforming and resistance. If identities are constructed in countless ways through families, schools, churches, peers, friendships, neighbourhoods and the broader culture, then here we see the actors play with these identities and wrestle with the limits of what is and is not allowed. Grandmother goes to the movies and the real story that interests her is the ongoing story of the actors themselves. Jean Harlow is now having it off with another man on screen and this confirms for her that men are fickle and not to be trusted. Schoolgirls are required to wear uniforms but spend endless hours accessorising and subverting them. When Lorna and her best friend Gail hold hands they are seen as lesbians in the eyes of the boys. (I was also interested in my own reaction here since I was sure somehow that LS was a lesbian and that the story would gradually reveal this to be the case. Perhaps it was the picture of her with Angela Carter at the back of the book, or it was her defiance of conventions.)

The last aspect of Bad Blood which I loved (and which forced me to take periodic breaks to recover and take it all in) was the way it returned me to my own childhood and adolescence in a new way. That brilliant description of her first school dance for example had me laughing as well as cringing with embarrassment at the memories of my own matric dance.

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