Why I... believe Lorna Sage inspires by example

January 19, 2001

As a professor of literature at the University of East Anglia, Lorna Sage may have seemed like a member of the establishment, but she always had the nerviness of an outsider, of someone who was (in her favourite expression) making it up as she went along.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, her intellectual authority was undeniable. She represented the best of the kind of teaching the School of English and American Studies at UEA offered - not in thrall to any one mode of thinking but capable of delivering responses to literature that were individual and eclectic, passionate and rigorous.

I was amazed when a member of faculty said she would not make a good referee because she was not considered "a proper academic" by many people. Her concentration on journalism over "scholarly research" had contributed to this myopic view. But what mattered was the quality of her work. She was not a snob about where it appeared.

Bad Blood , her Whitbread prizewinning autobiography, reveals how much of an outsider Lorna felt herself to be. At first I was troubled by what seemed a disproportionate sense of outrage. I now think her sense of being apart was inescapable - her anger entirely consonant with her understanding that being canny as a woman was, in a sense, what made you uncanny, homeless. And the cleverer you were, the further it put you beyond the pale.

She had little time for the performance of invalidity that infected many women writers and critics. What she admired in those she wrote about was their refusal to be hemmed in by circumstance. In a typically acute review of Christina Stead's work, Lorna wrote with approval: "She was scornful beyond anything of poverty of aspirationI everyone should want elaborately and richly."

Lorna's life and career will come to seem exemplary not only because she was a brilliant, stylish, unorthodox teacher, a generous supporter of students and colleagues and a perceptive editor of their work, but because of her determination not to be excluded.

Like Stead, she would "not be fobbed off with less than the best". The irony is that, while she may never have felt herself a true insider, she had become the head and the heart of the institution in which she worked. Perhaps a fitting tribute would be for us all to practise being, as Lorna described Stead's characters, "expert wanters", demanding more of ourselves and our world.

Kate Webb
Part-time lecturer in literature
University of East Anglia

Lorna Sage was Kate Webb's doctoral supervisor.

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