Monday, May 31, 2010

Lorna Sage's Bad Blood

1933 was the year the grandparents arrived in Hanmer from South Wales. This was how the Hanmer I grew up in had been created - how life in the vicarage got its Gothic savour, how we became so isolated from respectability, how the money started to not make sense and (above all) how my grandfather took on the character of theatrical martyrdom that set him apart. 1933, he did not fail to note, was the nineteenth-hundredth anniversary of Christ's Passion: 'This is the Crucifixion Year AD 0-33. A Holy Year.'

Lorna Sage (1943-2001) was a Welsh-born British author, scholar, and literary critic best known for her advocacy for the study of women's writing. Her 2000 autobiography Bad Blood won the 2001 Whitbread Book Biography of the Year seven days before Sage died of emphysema.

I didn't finish it.

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. <melodrama> 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. </melodrama>

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.

And so I abandoned Bad Blood on page 128, at the opening of the chapter entitled "Sticks." Again, I do feel guilty about it but I had other reading commitments and decided to cut my losses. Oh well. Better luck next time.

This Book and I Could Be Friends

Previous Reviews:

October 2009: Woman in Black

Bad Blood

For our discussion this time around the Slaves took a step away from the usual selection of a novel and chose to read a memoir, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage. While I enjoy reading a well written memoir, and this one definitely is that, I never quite know what to say about them. A person's personal story is not quite the same as a novel so I fall into thinking things like, "wow, what a weird family guess mine isn't as weird as I thought."

I could recount for you Sage's life - growing up in a small Welsh border town in a vicarage run by her philandering grandfather during WWII, a grandmother who lived in a fantasy world where she believed she was of a higher class and deserved to be catered to so never lifted a finger to clean a thing leaving all that to her daughter whose husband was away at the war. Other than being attached to her grandfather and getting some education and a love of books from him, Sage was pretty much left to run wild. The educational system was set up to train girls who were going to get married and have children and boys who were going to be manual laborers. But Sage persevered even after she became a teenage mother. She married the child's father and together they went off to college and were saved by education. After recounting her life, what do I say about it?

I can note that Sage's family life while growing up was all about keeping up appearances. Her grandmother was always concerned about what kids she played with even though Sage was as poor and dirty as the lower class poor and dirty kids she was warned away from. Grandfather, at first excited about his living at the vicarage soon became disillusioned by the small town especially after his affair with the nurse was discovered and Grandmother, his wife, made his life a living hell. But the two remained married and he performed his duties as vicar until he died.

Once the was is over and Sage's father returned, they moved into a tiny council flat and gave the appearance of being a traditional family especially with the addition of a brother for Sage. Sage's mother would buy smart suits on layaway from the consignment shop to wear for a life she didn't have and make family dinners of pre-packaged processed meals. Sage's father worked all the time running his own business and never really seemed part of her life even though they would make public appearances as a family. Her younger brother is not mentioned much at all.

At the conclusion of Sage's memoir are we supposed to take away some lesson? Maybe how education is redemptive? Or a general feeling for the times? Perhaps there is no lesson to be learned at all. Perhaps it is only about understanding someone else's truth in order to better see our own?

If you would like to see what the other Slaves thought of the book, visit the blog. And, if you want to follow along and even contribute to additional discussion, join us in the forum.

Cross-posted at So Many Books