The connection between Kate Weinberg's 'The Truants' & the late Lorna Sage
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The Truants is a 2019 novel about a group of friends at the University of East Anglia, a UK institution known for its popular MA in Creative Writing. Over the years, this programme has seen many distinguished authors amongst its faculty.
At the start of the novel, undergraduate student Jess starts her studies having come from a comfortable but fairly isolating family background. Right away, she befriends Georgie, another new student in the same Halls, who comes from a somewhat upper class background and has a pretty relaxed attitude to sex and recreational drugs. The two become firm friends.
The friendship group is further rounded out by Georgie’s new boyfriend, Alec, a journalist from South Africa and several years older than Georgie and Jess. On first meeting him, Jess realises she has seen him before, and falls for him, but tells herself that nothing can happen due to her close friendship with Georgie. She starts seeing another student, Nick, but continues to admire Alec from afar. We follow the four friends as they travel around in Alec’s preposterous car, a funeral hearse.
Meanwhile, the second strand of the story introduces us to the enigmatic lecturer Lorna Clay, who Jess, through first person narration, tells us she fell in love with at the same time as Alec. A writer of a successful novel also called The Truants, Lorna has mysteriously transferred from Cambridge to teach English at the UEA. She is also in a relationship with another of the male professors, whom she lives with.
Lorna is teaching a course about Agatha Christie, and there appears from the start an attempt by Weinberg to use this element as a form of meta-fiction. Much is made of Christie’s infamous ‘disappearance’ in 1926, and I liked the concept that this was building from the start. Further connections were then brought into the story later on with poisons and murder, again the connections with the murder mystery author’s works.
However, what then ensued was a story that appeared confused as to its central theme. On the one hand, we have the four friends and the unrequited love on Jess’s part. On the other, we have Lorna Clay and her suggestive directions via her mentoring of Jess. There was a lot packed into this novel, and although I enjoyed the fast pace and the story kept my interest throughout, it felt at times as though Weinberg was trying to do too much with it.
The Agatha Christie connections and the infatuation with Lorna Clay was an interesting thread, and yet the book often became much more about the dubious nature of Alec and Jess’s growing interest in one another, and Georgie’s growing dependence on drugs. The character of Nick was not fleshed out at all really, and he became very one-dimensional, such that I was unsure of the need to include him in the story at all. I was much more interested in Lorna and Jess’s mentor-student relationship.
Many plot points were either sketchy or not fully fleshed out at all. For example, the connection with the title of Lorna Clay’s book felt like it should be significant, but this never really materialised, other than that the student friends often played ‘truant’ from lectures.
On finishing the book, I wondered at Weinberg’s connection to the University of East Anglia and whether she had in fact begun this first novel whilst studying there. On further research, and reading the acknowledgements at the back of the book, I was surprised to discover that she in fact studied at the university under the late writer, Lorna Sage, to which she places a dedication as the inspiration for the character of Lorna Clay.
I found this quite unusual, as she barely changes the real-life Lorna’s name (Sage to Clay) and gives her many of the original writer’s characteristics, even down to the fact that she is working on a book about the writer Angela Carter at the end of the novel. I was surprised at this, particularly given the less-than favourable character portrait she draws of the fictional Lorna Clay. Similarities between the real Lorna Sage and the fictional Lorna Clay are numerable: a teaching career at the UEA; the books about other women writers; the commute between her Italian writing retreat and teaching on campus; a younger lover (the real Lorna married hers, the fictional one does not).
This rabbit-hole led me to research the work of Lorna Sage, who has been mentioned before by one of my subscribers. I had come across her celebrated study on 20th century women’s fiction before, Women in the House of Fiction, but had not read her memoir Bad Blood, nor appreciated the circumstances of her successful career.
Lorna Sage was a writer, scholar, and literary critic, who is often most recognised for her memoir Bad Blood, though this was written towards the end of her life. Prior to the publication of Bad Blood, Sage was a charismatic teacher at the University of East Anglia between 1965 and her death in 2001. An inspiration to many students, Sage was born in the village of Hanmer on the English-Welsh border. Her memoir tells the story of her childhood and upbringing in the village rectory by her mother and grandparents.
A love of reading was instilled in her from a young age, where she claims her grandfather, who ‘lived a life of sexual scandal and frustrated ambition’ introduced her to books, whilst she said ‘her grandmother introduced her to the secret lives of women.’ The Guardian
Sage claimed to learn from an early age of the strangeness of families, as well as the importance of reading. Books allowed her to escape the turbulence of her family home. On her father’s return from fighting in WWII, Sage moved with her parents into a council-house, realising at this point the prejudice of her class, and later crossing the English border to attend a girls’ grammar school in 1953. It was here that she added a love of Latin to her love of reading, as well as realising the importance of being intellectually superior, which she felt overcame any moral inferiority.
She also discovered the power of her good looks, and the discovery of boys and rock ‘n’ roll, meeting Vic Sage, her future first husband, at the age of 15. By 16, she was married and pregnant with her first and only child, a daughter, Sharon. Against the odds of her situation and class, however, Sage continued with her academic ambitions, applying to read English at the prestigious Durham University, to which she was awarded a scholarship.
St Aidan’s College, Durham, relaxed its rules to allow married women who were mothers to attend their campus, and together with her husband Vic, the pair began their English studies together in 1961.
Though the couple’s marriage eventually ended, they remained intellectually and emotionally close throughout their lives. Both graduated with first class honours in 1964 and moved on to Birmingham University where Sage began studies at the Shakespeare Institute, becoming an assistant lecturer in English at the newly established University of East Anglia in 1965. Vic joined her later in a similar position at the same university. Once there, Sage became part of an esteemed faculty of other writers, making lasting friendships with supporters of her later work. She also formed a close bond with a fellow female academic, Patricia Hollis, who later became a government minister.
Sage’s identity as a literary critic gained momentum in the 1960s and 70s, beginning with an early publication on Milton and her interest in neoPlatonism, something which developed into trips to Italy and the archives of Florence. Her major study on these topics remained unpublished on her death at the age of 57, however, there are many other examples of her work.
She became an authoritative critic of contemporary fiction, something she took very seriously, reading all works by an author before reviewing them. She developed a style of criticism that made her writing both intelligent and accessible, and claimed to enjoy moving between academia and literary London.
Her first marriage ended in the late 1970s, and she married again to Rupert Hodson, meeting him during her research work in Italy. She began dividing her time between teaching at the University of East Anglia during term-time and writing in Italy. She also enjoyed a friendship with the writer Angela Carter, which influenced a new development of her work into women writers and their writing, publishing a study of Doris Lessing in 1983, followed by the successful Women in the House of Fiction in 1991, (a study of 20th century women’s fiction), and a book about the work of Angela Carter in 1994.
This work led to her becoming the editor-in-chief of The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, and to her writing many introductions to the works of women writers such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. She claimed not to just write about women writers but to make their work more widely recognised, saying she was interested in women who wrote against the cultural obstacles they had to endure.
Sage was twice the dean of the School of English and American Studies as well as the chair in English Literature.
In the final five years of her life, Sage suffered with emphysema, however continued to write and teach in her true, charismatic fashion. Although she had many projects underway at the time of her death, she was preoccupied with completing the memoir of her life as a young woman which was to become Bad Blood.
In her memoir, Sage explores the truth of her early life growing up in the rectory which she claims was filthy and Gothic-like. Her grandfather was a boozy vicar and serial-womaniser, referred to by her grandmother as the “old devil”. Later readings of her grandfather’s diaries revealed that her grandmother had been blackmailing him.
Sage claimed that she was known as ‘his creature’ being taken under her grandfather’s wing with regards to a love of reading and spending a lot of time with him. She also states that the family had their confirmation of her inherited ‘bad blood’ from her grandfather when she became pregnant at the age of 16. She says they hoped she would miscarry, but a healthy daughter, Sharon, was born to Lorna and Vic, teenage parents. The memoir ends with the couple leaving for Durham University and their future life in academia.
Sharon was left in the care of her grandparents, with both Lorna and Vic visiting when they could. Surprisingly, Sharon has been quoted as saying she had an idyllic childhood, stating that she benefited from what she saw as her grandparents second chance at parenting that differed completely from Lorna’s own experience.
She also claims to have had an unorthodox but ultimately happy life when she moved to Birmingham to be with her parents following their graduation from Durham, and starting their new teaching careers. Students came and went from the home, interesting people she didn’t mind sharing her parents with. She does however recall the difficulty she encountered in adjusting to being in school with other children when she was used to being around intellectual adults a lot of the time, as well as the embarrassment she felt at parents’ evenings’ when her glamorous young parents would show up. Anything she did to rebel paled when compared to her mother’s life, which continued to be lived unconventionally, including marrying her second husband who was just three years older than her daughter, and commuting between Italy and Norwich.
It would be amazing as a researcher into women’s narratives with a specific interest in mother writers to have read Lorna Sage’s continuation of Bad Blood, to discover her life as a working writer, academic, and mother, and how she combined these elements of her life. Sadly, Sage became ill with emphysema, something which she dealt with in true fashion by keeping her illness mostly to herself and continuing her work.
Bad Blood went on to win the Whitbread prize for biography in 2001, a week before Sage’s death at the age of 57. Her daughter Sharon collected the prize on her mother’s behalf, the day after her funeral.
Although I wonder at the choice of Weinberg to include such a close resemblance to her former mentor through her fiction, it is easy to see how this remarkable writer, academic, and woman would have had such a positive and indelible influence on her years at UEA.
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