A Magnificent Misfit

Lorna Sage rejected empty romanticizing in favor of complex truth

With this memoir rich in dark humor and vivid prose, Lorna Sage—who at the time of her death last year, just two days short of her fifty-eighth birthday, was one of Britain's most admired women of letters—charts her bookish girlhood in a disorderly family centered in a place of "changeless order": post-World War II Hanmer, Wales. Although most of the rural town's inhabitants knew their place and expected to stay there, Sage was a misfit in a family of misfits, much to her eventual advantage in the wider world. Reading Sage's account of her eccentric family—the grandmother who subsists on tea cakes and unstinting hatred of her husband; the mother who reverts to girlishness when her husband returns from the war, forgetting how to ride a bike and celebrating her ineptitude as a housewife; and the father whose "characteristic tone of voice was a sort of self-righteous yell"—is like listening to a friend whose stories about her family's nuttiness will always top yours. She can amuse us with this material in part because she writes as if she kept her distance from all of them, with the exception of her depressive and womanizing grandfather, the vicar of Hanmer's Anglican church, who imbued her with the "taste for words" that in large part determined the course of her life.

Sage reveals her own eccentricities with pride. She spent a good part of her girlhood wandering the countryside, "addicted to the glum pleasures of plodding about alone." And she claims she never slept after the age of nine. Owing to sinus problems that kept her awake, she got a doctor's permission to read all night; anyone who grew up constantly reading will recognize and relish her account of hiding in books and building "a kind of nest out of any old scraps of print," and also the self-consciousness and the sense of "sleepwalking" in public that tend to accompany a proclivity to live inside one's head. Having spent her formative years in the "secret slum" of the vicarage, which "turned in on itself" away from the public square and in which "the bits no one could see" were "nearly never" washed, Sage was enamored of dark corners and creepy stories. (Her family, whose members preferred to go their separate ways, was relieved to move from a council house with an "open-plan" living room to an Edwardian villa "with lots of solidly separate rooms.") But she also wanted to be "out": she craved friends, developed a typical teenage girl's interest in boys, and longed for a career. Boys and homework were supposed to be mutually exclusive, but as an insomniac, Sage writes, she had time for both. Still, the physical world remained fuzzier for Sage than her mental one. So sure was she from her reading that sex would be a "momentous" experience that she was surprised at sixteen to realize, by discovering she was pregnant (with her daughter, Sharon), that she must indeed have "gone all the way."

Although her experience of the conflicting emotions of childhood and adolescence may be nearly universal, Sage eschews shorthand and cliché, and so rejects whining and empty romanticizing in favor of complex truth. Hanmer was "a most picturesque place from a certain distance, but close up its substance was heavy and strange," a mud whose pull at her feet she savored, both literally and figuratively. A part of her longed to be truly a creature of Hanmer, "fully occupied going nearly nowhere," instead of having to make up her life as she went along. She adored her grandfather but admits that had he lived long enough, he would surely have betrayed her "as he had all the others." At her first dance she hoped in the usual teenage fashion for a "cavalier," but ended up monopolized instead by "distracted, disjointed and clammy" Victor Sage. And though he would soon become her confidante, lover, and husband, he would never be Mr. Darcy.

She credits a girlfriend with the ability to make meaningful stories out of seemingly mundane events (she could "caress shapeless moments ... until they wriggled into life and sucked your fingers"), but that gift in fact belonged equally to Sage. Her confiding style is casual, but her observations probe deeply into familial relationships, the social forces of postwar Britain, and, most of all, her own developing awareness of her desires and talents. This memoir captures both a type—a book-loving girl of the 1950s, with the disadvantages of her gender and rural upbringing, who will make a brilliant career for herself—and an intensely strange, scrappy, and winning individual.