Bad Blood at 18

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In her introduction to Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, Lorna Sage identifies an approach to short storytelling characterised by, ‘a different kind of continuity made up of allusions, cross-references and affiliations among the separate stories in the book.’ In lieu of writing a novel, Sage points out, Mansfield had found within another genre, a distinct way to connect characters, images and themes. Sage’s analysis here applies to her own memoir Bad Blood, for which she is best known, remarkable in part because of the way it uses similar techniques to tell the story of her childhood and teenage years living in the Shropshire village of Hanmer. Literature was how Sage survived that upbringing and it is how she made her living, as a critic and teacher, so it is not surprising that Bad Blood – charting the first, turbulent eighteen years of her life – would be written with a subtle and imaginative interplay of the literal and the figurative. The book met with widespread acclaim on publication, winning the Whitbread Award for Biography in 2000. Yet the repeated motifs, the fine balance and intricacy of allusions and echoes in it have been little remarked upon, no doubt given the already startling facts of Sage’s youth.

Sage reconstructs social life in postwar Britain with an exacting attention to emotional and physical texture. Hers is a story of growing up in a village of long traditions and fast-changing realities – the emergence of council houses, the mechanisation of agricultural methods, the tricky adaptations of soldiers to civvy street and the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll from the US are all touched on. The members of Sage’s family and their tempestuous relationships, secrets and disappointments make of a seemingly idyllic rural life a psychodrama of sometimes gothic power. Sage’s close connection to her clergyman grandfather – described by her grandmother as ‘Old Devil’ (from whom she is said to have inherited ‘bad blood’) is the source of a difficult relationship with her own mother. Later, the facts of the vicar’s affairs (one with a teenage friend of Sage’s mother) are made known to Sage, who nevertheless feels her kinship with her grandfather undiminished.

Perhaps most insistently underlined by reviewers, however, has been the story of Sage’s pregnancy at the age of 16 and her determination, in the light of local disapproval and Sage’s dependence on Latin and ancient literature for survival, to enter university – which she did, alongside the child’s father, Victor, and from which both would graduate with firsts (a first). Sage went on to become a respected literary critic and teacher at the University of East Anglia. Her death not long after the publication of Bad Blood meant that the press coverage of the book complemented, and sometimes doubled as, personal tributes from former students and colleagues.

Hers is an extraordinary story and the way in which Sage tells it is precisely by making ordinary occurrences into something else; making metaphors out of drab details and finding resonances among the episodes and personalities in her life. All of the elements are combined to give a sense that her account of a vicarage upbringing is a sort of sacrilegious retelling of a religious story – complete with its own ‘travesty of the immaculate conception’ and young lovers ‘crucified on each other’ in the act of that conception; a parable for women, for whom the ‘nervous 1950s’ would give way to the freedoms of the following decades, when so many rules and barriers broke.

In addition, the diary of Sage’s bookworm grandfather and her night-through readings of fairytales, classics and thrillers seem to provide a genetic code for her memoir. The language and the various types of literature that Sage discovered and devoured as a child are all used to help shape the narrative that she makes of her adolescence. There is throughout the book a longing to escape, to break through strictures, to mix genres. Sage blurs boundaries between the abstract and concrete; between generations and between individual characters. This better enables her to draw the reader’s attention to connections, intimacies and rhymes (as well as hypocrisies) among those people and events that might usually be kept at a respectable distance in the rationed, provincial propriety of 1940s Britain.

Against the hyper-literacy of Sage’s story is an unconventional numeracy, which begins at school with her inability to abstract mathematical concepts (‘sums were my cross’) from real ‘things’; continuing through the emotionally fraught triangles among her and her friends (as well as her grandparents and her grandfather’s lover, MB) and finally the merging of Lorna Stockton and Victor Sage in their shared intensity. She describes this passionate intimacy by which their daughter Sharon was conceived as, ‘this childish mathematics of two into one won’t go’ – and later of her bond with Victor, ‘We were each other’s other half, or even closer. We were one and the same, we’d abolished the differences of the conventional world assumed between the sexes, we had a union of true minds as much as bodies.’ There is also mathematical recourse in Sage’s mode of emphasis, which extends to her critical writing on numerous subjects: not just embarrassment but ‘embarrassment squared’; not simply sin but ‘sin squared’.

In order to push at the edges of logic and convention in this way, the ‘bad faith’ of the past (a term Sage learned from Simone de Beauvoir and which Marina Warner suggests might have been an inspiration for the title of Bad Blood) has to be reckoned with. Sage’s depiction of disrespectable vicarage life pulls apart the old order not only of religious authority but also authority between one generation and the next. Though Sage’s closeness to her vicar grandfather is underscored from the first lines of the book (a description of her hanging from his skirts around the church) any sense of old-fashioned fear of God is dissolved. There is an exemplary recollection early on, as Sage remarks on the vicar’s habit of drinking the church wine, leading the authorities to limit the supply and her grandfather replacing it with ‘watered-down Sanatogen from Boots the chemist in Whitchurch’. Already the biblical act of turning water into wine has been replaced by that of watering down cheap fortified wine; the miraculous made mundane.

Just as the unconventional arithmetic challenges everyday understanding, so too there is an unusual evolutionary chain that can be traced through Bad Blood. It’s also a feature that Sage sees in common among the twelve women writers whom she discusses in her collection of essays, Moments of Truth: ‘there is a recurrent evolutionary theme, starting with Darwinian echoes in Wharton and Woolf, surfacing again in Rhys, Stead and Barnes… through to Carter and the wolfish metamorphoses of The Bloody Chamber.’ To progress through her perceptive commentaries on these writers’ works is to simultaneously glimpse Sage describing key elements that characterise her own memoir, not least this recourse to troubled ancestry and freakish mutations as a way of dealing with personal and historical inheritances – and the attempt to free oneself from them.

At the prosaic level of everyday sustenance in 1950s Hanmer, the feeding of the 5,000 finds its modern, secular equivalent in Sage’s account of the fish finger – a revelation in home economics, especially for her mother who could not cook: ‘In fish fingers nature was grandly snubbed and outdone. Their very name mocked the unreasonable design evolution had come up with for fish; and their bland and boneless insides left her nothing to worry about.’ There is a ghastly depiction of nature throughout the book, attuned to the realities of farming and industry. But there is also another narrative of the ‘facts of life’ that complicates the Darwinian story.

Sage’s determination to survive her upbringing is encouraged by what she sees as a regressive tendency among the generations in her family. And even, on her grandmother’s part, a revulsion towards the sexual act as a means of procreation. Her mother’s mother, according to Sage, longs to return to her childhood, when her family ran Hereford Stores in Tonypandy and had skivvies to do the housework. In her discontented marriage, which involves endless rows and the manipulation of her cheating husband for money, the shopping trips and latest cinema screenings by which she spends her time represent, for Sage, ‘the prospect of never growing up’. Similarly her mother embraces fantasy and buys outfits beyond her means while playing the role of housemaid and helpless wife she seems both resentful towards, yet resigned to – to Sage’s horror: ‘it seemed that nobody inside our family wanted to be mother, everyone was a daughter in perpetuity.’ This goes some way to explaining why the gravity of Sage’s sudden pregnancy and its disruption of these comforting illusions, of living out fantasies through others, is conveyed in such shocking terms: ‘I made my mother pregnant’.

Sage even admits to the pull of the ancestral, the lure and threat of the Rhondda, representing as it does a ‘smothering, spongy womb’. But she makes what moves forward she can, as stuttering as they are at first, shuttled back and forth between Whitchurch High School and Hanmer, before Durham with Victor. Film and theatre are the magical escape routes for the adults around her, but they don’t get very far that way. Sage sees through the pretence, sees for instance how her father remains ‘a prisoner of war, although he was never captured’. There is a sense of confinement, and a desire to leave and transform (at the level of the language, too, in that way in which Sage repeatedly makes metaphors from the ground level at which she is apparently stuck). For her grandfather the local pantomime is a means of bearing the strain of his affair with the nurse, MB. For her grandmother the lives of actors are treated as being of equal importance to those of the family. But Sage reserves her strictest judgement for her mother:

‘My mother’s acting seemed to me like a monstrous display of bad faith, she was pretending to be outgoing and self-possessed when “really” she was helpless. Or, even worse, on the stage she was revealing the way she always pretended, for the helplessness she put on in real life was an act too…’

Sage recognises how ‘hemmed in’ everything is in Hanmer. And it is literature that provides the means of her own escape, first psychologically, then physically as well.  Along with the transmutations of traditional religious imagery, Sage also describes her early years as if they are a grey, grubby Welsh fairytale, seeing stock characters in those around her: ‘Also, they measured up to the magical monsters in the story books.’ But the white rabbits are here stricken with myxomatosis and the dwarf is a dentist, who helps Lorna to fix the teeth that do not suit the bad jaw she has inherited (another evolutionary misstep). She even compares her own pregnancy indirectly to Dennis Wheatley’s horror story To the Devil a Daughter (extending the ‘bad blood’ of the ‘Old Devil’).

Literature allows  Sage to transform the cloistered existence of the vicarage and council house in Hanmer into figurative language that raises her experiences, and those of her family, into sublime expressions. Warner writes, ‘Lorna Sage has discerned a pattern in the way women writers of the last century made their exits from bargains involving bad faith – both on their part and on the part of others.’ The philosophical instincts of Sage’s early years in the classroom also appear to be key: ‘I developed a dauntingly Platonic conception of arithmetical truths. The real answer must exist, but in some far-removed misty empyrean.’

But it happens that the answer to Sage’s youthful desires is not so far removed. With Victor, Sage describes, ‘The boundaries between us had been breached… You could track back this kind of alchemy in books’ – and she finds it, for the reader, in Plato’s Symposium. And it is not in some misty empyrean but the University of Durham where the pair find new prospects. As against her mother’s ‘secret, shifting system of taboos’, her father’s ‘mythic realism’, grandfather’s ‘cocoon of distraction’, grandmother’s ‘fantasy gratifications’ and the ‘mind-forged manacles of Hanmer and Whitchurch’ they make a new ‘mutant myth out of poems and stories and sheer necessity’.

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