Lorna Sage - Student

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The Sages take up Literature, October 1961

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A young graduating married couple, who are also parents, attracts press attention 

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 'The couple who are one degree over!' Daily Mirror, 27 June 1964

Lorna’s life as a university student was literally like no other woman’s up until the point when she was accepted at Durham University. As a married woman in 1960, she could not be accepted at British universities as a student without a change to the rules, and Lorna was not only married, but had had a baby, both of which were unheard of.

Lorna’s remarkable, concentrated, focused student career was marked by the influence of two extraordinary women, Ethleen Scott, who was Principle of St Aidan’s Society at Durham, from approximately 1947 until 1970, and Miss Roberts, her Latin teacher at school. Skilful, sensitive teachers and educators are not ‘magicked’ into being, and the way that these two women modelled a version of the educated, independent woman, undoubtedly marked the way that Lorna grew into an educator herself.

Lorna had written to ask whether she might go up to Durham at the age of 17, and the letter that she received in response appears here in the exhibition, explaining that she was too young to be admitted. Her next application presented an even more seemingly impossible set of circumstances, but one which Ethleen Scott decided to respond positively to, regardless of its lack of convention and potential difficulty.

I am very grateful to my father, Victor Sage, for providing a close, perhaps the closest possible, reading of the past in his memories of this time, with Lorna as a student:

‘When we arrived there was an immediate sort of false note…the freaks were noted by the local newspaper, and the Sages were as extraordinary as a vicar of 65 who was starting a degree as an undergraduate…

Miss Scott was a key, key figure… without her it couldn’t have been done. She was Principle of St Aidan’s Society, where married women weren’t admitted… Miss Scott was Irish, so in a sense I think she knew about outsiders… she was remarkably sympathetic. I think a lot of people might have found her severe and off-putting, she was tough, but she was absolutely wonderful to us…we were a pair of outsiders that she picked up, and she looked after us.

What she did was something that Lorna respected enormously. She [Lorna] would always look out for the outsiders in her teaching and in her general career. She was acutely aware of anybody who was in an outside position in some way or other.

We were quite happy to be pariahs in a way…somehow we were older than our peers. Something was behind us, driving us, and also we had an acute feeling that we were there on a mission, we were not just there, we were not just drifting up into university, it wasn’t like that at all, it was a place we had to get on in and we were driven.

But we’d already had that attitude at A level, so we already had that relationship to each other.’

That A level work, which enabled both Lorna and Victor to successfully get through the rigorous process of university applications, including for a scholarship in Lorna’s case, was helped immeasurably by Miss Roberts, Lorna’s school teacher:

‘Miss Roberts was a remarkable person who was a Socialist, and that was the first thing you had to know about her and the first thing that was true about her… there were very very few, in that community, Socialists, so she was an extraordinary person who was an independent woman all her life, and Lorna was her star pupil in Latin, and Lorna loved Latin. I remember… we went to Miss Roberts’ house, for Latin lessons.

Miss Roberts was very severe if you weren’t up to scratch. We would do translations together… she would do 10 lines and I would do 10 lines… I was not the real thing, but she was very nice and I saw that she was a big inspiration to Lorna, because she was an independent woman, she herself felt outside the school, she was a marvellous all-round left-winger and was very controversial.

Lorna liked her, really she was probably her favourite person. It’s interesting because  Miss Roberts was very much like Ethleen Scott in a sense. Miss Roberts belonged to a certain generation, it was inspiring, I could see what Lorna was getting from her, again it was this question of outsiders ‘counting’. Lorna had a knack of making the outsider position count. That was one of the things she’d learned from this whole experience…Very important for giving one the sense that OK, you’re outside the frame, but that could be a liberation to you.

Latin was very important for her because of that degree of concentration on the text itself, to elucidate a Latin text is an achievement, but then to take notice of what kind of poetic genre it was, and that kind of thing… allowed her to then carry over that intensity to looking at Wordsworth for example. When I first met her she was studying Wordsworth, and she loved Wordsworth and loved the landscape in Shropshire, and I could see that she brought to a simple little poem of Wordsworth, that intensity… to inhabit the thing… nobody needed to tell her about this because of the way she’d been taught latin… I think Miss Roberts was responsible for that.

What was so interesting was that when she got to East Anglia, the movement that Nicholas [Brooke] had partly been in and that partly we had been taught, was intensive investigation of a single short text or a section of a text and of course that was where I think the cross over for Lorna took place.

Then when we read William Empson and thought about what Nicholas was doing with literature the whole thing started to take off … you were part of a controversy without even knowing you were. Until we got to East Anglia we didn’t really know that there was some kind of controversy going on in criticism which was to do with the Cambridge School, run by I A Richards, who had been teaching this thing called Practical Criticism, and that was what she had been doing with Latin. She [Lorna] realised that and went gung-ho into the Cambridge School. She always wanted to reproduce in her own criticism the primary thrill of the text… Knowing something that was very intimate about this text but which could be drawn out of it.

That’s how she wrote her reviews.’

Listen to an excerpt from an audio interview with Victor Sage here.

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