Lorna Sage - Academic and Writer

UEA Collection.ARM photographic deposit. UEA The Institution.Deans.1987-1995.jpg

Lorna Sage, pictured with other Deans of the University of East Anglia

Lorna Sage with Angela Carter.jpg

Angela Carter (left) delivering a lecture with Lorna Sage

The defiantly indiscriminate reader was simultaneously a curious and encyclopaedic teacher. Lorna’s ‘reading vocabulary’ could be tapped at any time and anywhere, not only in the more formal environment of the university, but across the kitchen table. Lorna’s ability to point her students in the direction of precisely the portion, possibly even page, of precisely the right text, was well known.

She conquered her nerves at ‘performing’ in the academic arena, by developing a very particular style of lecturing, as though speaking to every individual in her audience. She had an intimate, warm, ironic delivery, ready to pause, picking up the new connections she could seamlessly summon between texts and readings of texts. Long before the scourge of ‘lesson plans’, Lorna’s style was at once rigorous, speculative and playful.

And yet she was also a formidable administrator, twice Dean of the School of English and American Studies – the lone woman among massed ranks of men.

She brought numerous writers to UEA during her career, famous amongst them Angela Carter and Ali Smith, and championed women writers in editing the Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English (1999). The Guide was a global adventure, a carnival to which she invited contributors from everywhere. It was a vast undertaking, compiled and edited in the clunky days of the floppy disk, exploring every bit of territory at once: writers, individual texts, general terms, genres and movements: 

‘…Little by little, literature became a suitable profession for a woman during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. You can trace the nature of the social pressures involved by reading between the lines of many of the life-stories here. When a father or a husband died leaving no provision, when business ventures failed, or extravagance undermined the family finances, then decent women were allowed – allowed themselves – to write for a living. Otherwise, said Mary Brunton, whose novel Self-Control (published anonymously in 1811) seems to have influenced Jane Austen – well, a lady would as soon go in for rope-dancing. But they did, they did. In fact rope-dancing isn’t a bad metaphor for the precarious business of supporting yourself by writing, even now.’ (Preface, The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, 1999)

As an academic, Lorna made space for women:

‘She champions outsiders, writers who (as she used to put it) ‘have no reason to exist’, who invent themselves. The most important task of criticism for her is the act of finding a vocabulary for the value of those who are awkward and hard to define…’ (Introduction to Good as Her Word, 2004)

In Women in the House of Fiction (Macmillan, 1992) Lorna inserts women into the House built by Henry James:

‘…’the house of fiction’ isn’t, for my purposes, only a metaphor for containment. It’s a reminder that fiction isn’t placeless…The women’s movement, and feminist politics, have found fictional shape in narratives that explore self-division, the multiplicity of ways to be. The novelists, I want to argue, are agents of alterneity, interested – after all – in reinscribing the boundaries of fiction. They construct halls of reflection, and they take self-consciousness for granted, as one strategy among many. What this book tries to do is characterise and celebrate what they’ve built. The novel has proved a lot more habitable than it looked to Beauvoir: uncovering its conventions has disclosed its power to define an invented place.’ (Introduction to Women in the House of Fiction, 1992)


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