Sally Ledger: Victorian scholar who advanced the study of women writers and recast views of Dickens

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The Independent Online

Sally Ledger, a leading scholar in Victorian Studies and the Hildred Carlile Chair of English at Royal Holloway, died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. She was only 47, but already had a list of impressive achievements behind her. This is a cruel loss to her family, but also to the discipline in which she excelled.

Ledger was born in East Grinstead and grew up in Crawley. She was from solid Labour Party stock and had fond memories of campaigning on door-steps long before she was eligibleto vote. Her no-nonsense, straight-forward sense of dealing with people, institutions and literary history came from this background. She had initially thought of studying music, butafter a year working in France, she decided in 1982 to study English at Queen Mary's College, London. Signs of things to come were indicatedby her winning the George Smith Prize in 1985 for the best First in English across the colleges of the University of London.

She went on to Oxford to study for her doctorate with the iconoclastic Terry Eagleton, then an enfant terrible introducing politics and literary theory into Oxford's fusty faculty. It was a meeting of minds: Ledger kept her feet on the ground and always found displays of academic pomposity or self-importance laughable. Her thesis on the odd late-Victorian figure Mark Rutherford led her to explore areas of Victorian dissent and popular radicalism that would occupy her career. She never published on Rutherford; to her increasing amusement, he cunningly evaded every project she conceived.

Her early career included teaching posts at Royal Holloway, Exeter and Cheltenham before she secured alectureship at the University of the West of England. She married Jim Porteous in 1988 and they settled in Bristol. With their son, Richard, they formed a strong team united by a love of guitars, holidays in the Lake District and Chelsea Football Club. Her message to colleagues and students in the often driven world of academia was always to combine work with play. She could move in the blink of an eye from a discussion on the politics of literary theory to an ardent debate on what the wage structure at Chelsea was doing to the game.

In 1995, Ledger joined Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury in London. Birkbeck, a Victorian institution built to educate working people through evening teaching, matched her own principles and she thrived in this context. The English department has a long history of eminent Victorian scholarship, and she soon matched her stride with her internationally renowned colleagues Isobel Armstrong and Michael Slater.

In 1997, she published The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. This groundbreaking work helped to recover a generation of women writers and radicals from the late-Victorian period. It is hard to recall how disregarded this aspect of cultural history was until a short time ago and it was Ledger's generation of women scholars who reclaimed this work. Her readings brilliantly teased out the often contradictory politics of gender, race and literary form in the fiction of the period. Soon, having published another short book on Henrik Ibsen, edited a collection of essays, and published an anthology of primary texts on the late Victorians, Ledger was considered a leading expert in the era. She was appointed Professor at Birkbeck in 2005. Typically, she refused to specialise, but worked backwards through the 19th century to address the work of Charles Dickens.

She became involved in the Dickens Fellowship in London, organising an annual conference, and since 2005 had been an integral part of the Dickens Project, run by the University of California at Santa Cruz. In 2007 she published Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination, a book which placed Dickens amid the vibrant dissenting political culture of the 1830s and 1840s. Our slightly air-brushed sense of Dickens was carefully recast. It was dangerous to call Dickens "sentimental" in Ledger's presence, and her next project was an ambitious attempt to understand how sentimentality had become a term of abuse.

In the discipline, Ledger will be remembered as a tireless organiser and administrator, co-founding a highly successful Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies, based at Birkbeck but with global reach. She was an inspirational head of department, a genius at smoothing easily ruffled academic feathers. She helped found new degrees in creative writing and theatre. Her thirst for new challenges took her to Royal Holloway in September 2008 as professor and Director of Research. She had only just got her feet under the table, but had already made a huge impact on her new colleagues with her enthusiastic belief that academic life could be a collaborative and even joyous adventure. She will be terribly missed by many around the world.

Sally Ledger, English scholar: born East Grinstead, Sussex 14 December 1961;lecturer in Victorian Studies, Birkbeck College, London University 1995-2001, reader 2001-06, professor 2006-08;Hildred Carlile Chair in English, Royal Holloway, University of London2008; married 1988 Jim Porteous (one son); died Letchworth, Hertfordshire 21 January 2009.