Secret Style Icon No.13: Lorna Sage

Lorna Sage’s daughter, in this wonderful article, describes an early memory of ‘clomping alongside’ her mother on a walk across a park, in ugly Clark’s shoes, while Lorna was ‘barefoot and wearing a slinky catsuit zipped down to her naval’. Lorna Sage wrote about Plato, John Milton, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter as Professor of English Literature at the University of East Anglia, and ‘loved knitting in front of Star Trek’.

She embraced wit and glamour and thrawn bravery, through a life that was tumultous and difficult. Her daughter Sharon describes a life of endless visitors, raucous parties, and late night wrangles over Brecht. In Marina Walker’s obituary of Sage, she describes ‘a powerful ally, a co-conspirator, an invigorating talker’, a woman who ‘laughed at obstacles, skewered enemies with a phrase’. Like her friend Angela Carter, she died young of a lung disease, and Walker writes that, a decade before her death, she was short of breath, ‘frail and gallant, stylish and determined’; but had no truck with sentimentality or self-pity.

Walker also remarks that ‘few people can have struggled with so much and made so little fuss’, and this was exactly how I felt when I read Lorna Sage’s book Bad Blood, about her childhood and adolescence in the stagnant, sidelined Welsh town of Hamner in the fifties and early sixties. It’s a caustic, incisive, witty and clear-sighted look at her own claustrophobic family, riddled with larger-than-life characters who all writhe with thwarted ambition and old grudges. The bad blood of the title comes from the family’s wary distaste for books and lust, two vices that her grandfather (a vicar) indulged in to his disgrace, and which Lorna inherited, to everyone’s dismay.

She grew up shy and tongue-tied, unable to tell the time or meet anyone’s eye, and books were her refuge: hours reading her grandfather’s novels (the ones with inked out titles proving the most interesting) and later, translating Latin. The serene, silent, beloved world of written words, as opposed to the dangerous clumsiness of speech, are given heartfelt tribute. Her parents, though, were flatly unimpressed with Lorna’s cleverness. They deemed her a deviant creature – too clever by far, is a phrase that comes up in Hamner a lot – and were proved spectacularly right when she became pregnant at 16, after an adolescence spent mainly reading all night with a torch and a book, playing tennis badly with her friend Gail, and having a few young flurries of lust with her friend, and then boyfriend, Vic Sage. Reader, she married him, and had her baby, sat her exams shortly after, and then went off to university on a scholarship, with husband in tow. There is a suggestion that she might just have been the scandal of Hamner that year.

Vic and Lorna Sage, on graduation day from the University of Durham, with first class honours (both) and their four-year old daughter.

If ever there was a poster-girl for living life as you damn well want to, it was her. There are too many wonderful moments in Bad Blood to choose from, but here a fairly pregnant Lorna squeezes herself into a dress for the school dance and catches her boyfriend’s eye in the mirror:

‘I remember that the get-up I wore to that last dance had for me a special, pleasurable, private meaning. I was about to take a step into the dark, so like the heroine of a romance I wore a strapless dress, black with midnight blue splodgy flowers, tight-waisted and full-skirted, and I looked – as I’d wanted to look two years before – a lot older than I was, voluptuous, hooked-and-eyed into a ferocious corselette that pushed up my breasts, with stiff crinolene petticoats, dark blue stocking and spiky high heels, all the trappings of slang glamour. When Vic came round to collect me […] we stood before the mirror over the fireplace and looked at our reflections. The dance would be our farewell to teenage limbo. We were out on our own […]

Once, earlier that winter, I’d wantonly used up all the hot water and come down stairs in a bath towel and a dusting of talcum powder to let him in. We’d lain on the hearthrug, melting in the gloom, listening for tyres on the drive. All dressed up for the dance, watching ourselves in the mirror, we both remembered and put on world-weary smiles to match our finery’.

A way with words and an eye for a stylish get-up. What a hero.

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