Does an unhappy childhood make for a good autobiography?by Kate Kellaway / January 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Bad blood is a dashing title for an autobiography, somewhere between apology and swank. Lorna Sage, at the end of this year, has much to swank about. Look at any newspaper’s “Books of the Year” and there she is, turning up, again and again, like the bad penny she pretends to be.
Lorna Sage has my vote, too. But Bad Blood has been praised for some rum reasons. Doris Lessing says it would be “the saddest book you have ever read,” were it not for Sage’s vitality. But Bad Blood isn’t in the running for a “most unhappy childhood” award. If it had been a novel, there might have been a temptation to go to melancholy extremes, to make Lorna’s parents odious and the boy who got her pregnant at 16 a village idiot. It would also have been natural to assume that the baby would put an end to her education. But life was kinder. Lorna, as befits the granddaughter of a philandering vicar, sees good everywhere-and plenty of sin, too. Her picture of her parents is sympathetic (they loved each other, stayed married and did not oppose her ambitions) and she was encouraged by a liberal, unshockable teacher to go to university. Although the portrait of the boy who brought about her downfall begins as heartless comedy (“He was Victor Sage, his mother’s pride but no one else’s”), he later emerges as intelligent and decent. Lorna and Victor separated in 1974, but they are still “friends and colleagues.”
Bad Blood gripped me like a thriller, which is extraordinary, because it is about boredom. Sage describes with gusto the fearful tedium of Hanmer, the Welsh village in which she grew up. And when she first dips into her grandfather’s compromising diaries, she describes them as a “great shock” because the expected sinner-“the eccentric, predatory rook in a black cassock” that she has already evoked-turns out to be leading a “Pooterish” and “farcically domesticated life.” She admits: “I nearly censored January to June 1937 in the interests of Grandpa’s glamour as a Gothic personage. But in truth this is what we should be exposed to; the awful knowledge that when they’re not breaking the commandments, the anti-heroes are mending their tobacco pipes and listening to the wireless.” And so she treats us to a gripping disquisition on the subject of Grandpa’s pipes, worthy of Laurence Sterne.
A few years…