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


Pete said...

Very interesting review. I also lost my way in the middle and if it was not 'required reading' I'm not sure I would have persevered right through to the end. But I was so glad I did because the sections dealing with her adolescence and subsequent disgrace were gripping. But I tend to agree with you that the middle section gets a bit tedious. After the gothic drama of grandfather's disgrace and then the drama of Sage's own loss of innocence, she's struggling to find her way. But I think the tedium reflects her experiences of the time. I enjoyed reading her daughter's piece at the end too (in the Stranger than Fiction edition).

Stefanie said...

Don't feel guilty! There was a definite big of lag in the middle.

Pete, your edition had something in it from Sage's daughter? Mine didn't. Did she have anything interesting to say?