Lorna Sage

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The Independent Online

Few people can have struggled with so much and made so little fuss. Lorna Sage [obituary by Christopher Bigsby, 13 January] may be the proof we need that literature really can make something happen: certainly Bad Blood, her classic memoir, tells a story about books as passports out of a childhood hell.

Few people can have struggled with so much and made so little fuss. Lorna Sage [obituary by Christopher Bigsby, 13 January] may be the proof we need that literature really can make something happen: certainly Bad Blood, her classic memoir, tells a story about books as passports out of a childhood hell.

She was such a scalpel-sharp reader and such a fierce advocate of certain writing because she saw that literature and language are catalysts in the making of experience, not simply passive precipitates. It was exhilarating to be read by her, to be criticised by her, to hear her talk about writing. Though she focused on women's work, she illuminated many male authors, especially the Italians whom she could read before they were translated: she was an early, enthusiastic interpreter of Italo Calvino, for example, and followed Umberto Eco closely, writing an exuberant account of a long expansive lunch with him in Italy.

Over the years, since I first met her (I think) in Angus Wilson's comfy cottage near the campus of the University of East Anglia, and then, later, came across her and her husband Rupert Hodson by chance in the chapel of S Felicità in Florence, where we were all looking at the recently restored Pontormo frescoes, Lorna struck me as being one of those bright angels from one of the great imaginative epics she used to work on, from Milton, or Herbert: a fierce, unsparing intelligence, and a smiling beautiful Beatrice. Like Beatrice, she was capable of severity, and the possibility made her all the more exciting. Yet she was also a powerful ally, a co-conspirator, an invigorating talker; with irrepressible gaiety, she laughed at obstacles, skewering enemies with a phrase.

In the same spirit as Angela Carter, her great friend, who also died young of lung disease, Lorna faced adversity with gallows wit. Even as she fought for women's interests, she was never acquainted with sentimentality or self-pity. She was so sparkling, so caustic, so tough-minded, both on the page and in life, that she made her struggles sound light, her achievements easy. And then, after going through all that, after triumphing against the odds, she fell ill in her prime.

All the time I knew her, Lorna was short of breath. With her long fair hair, her pale, slender hands and legs, she was already a frail and gallant figure a decade ago, stylish and determined, but walking slowly, pausing for air. But she continued to be indomitably generous, pursuing a vision of a necessary, vital relation between academic learning and contemporary writing; to this end, she inspired students, reinvigorated readers and reading, discovered and supported writers. The scheme of the highly original Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing, with its international range, brisk liveliness and critical stringency, depends entirely on Lorna's editorial vision, and on the breadth of her knowledge of theoretical approaches as well as writers' work.

Bad Blood has revealed her gifts to a much wider public; her criticism should now be collected, so that selfishly, we can still keep company with her, and hear her inimitable voice. There seems to be a terrible nemesis destroying women of huge gifts, but unlike Angela Carter, who really never saw the recognition she deserved but died before she was acclaimed, Lorna Sage did express, in her low-key, self-effacing way, how much she was enjoying the unexpected (to her) praise for Bad Blood.

She was writing it for many years - some brilliant early instalments memorably appeared in The London Review of Books, a long-time stage for her talents. She may have succeeded in finishing the memoir because, with her usual open-eyed courage, she realised it had to be done sooner rather than later.

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