Reflections on Bad Blood (Lorna Sage)

I really enjoyed Lorna Sage’s (2001) prize-winning memoir Bad Blood and there are several aspects to that enjoyment that I want to share with you.

Firstly, what a brilliant memory she had. To be able to describe her childhood in such photographic detail is an immensely valuable skill. Apparently Lorna Sage (LS) took almost ten years to write this memoir and was prompted in part by having such vivid memories of her growing-up years as well as finding her grandfather’s diaries. I’m not sure which I enjoyed more – the descriptions of grandfather’s wickedness and the disaster that was the marriage between him and grandma or Lorna’s account of her teenage years and her own disaster (which turned out in many ways to be a blessing in disguise).

But I’m jumping ahead. Here are the opening lines:

Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path and I would hang on. He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much. I was a sort of hobble; he was my minder and I was his.

I love the way she hooks her readers from the very start. I read this in bursts and the measure of its success is the fact that I want to go off and read a whole lot more memoirs.

The second aspect of my enjoyment is perhaps more of an academic one but I loved the way she captures the complex interplay of the individual and the social in making up identity. Here we have three generations, all extremely relevant to each other, and there’s a wonderful cultural richness in her accounts of what it was like to live in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Family, church, school, community, friends – they all work together to construct that complex subjectivity.

From the perspective of psychology, and psychodynamic psychotherapy in particular, the negotiation of identity and the social and individual construction of subjectivity is an immensely fascinating subject. The cultural imperatives of the time meant that grandfather and grandmother were both trapped in what we would stereotype as a loveless marriage unless he was prepared to give up his position at the vicarage and she was prepared to give up her relative comfort. He turned to his vices (women, smoking, drinking perhaps) while she made do with her own sacraments of ‘a toasted teacake and a cup of tea’ and blackmailing him to support her movie-watching habit.

The second generation, LS’s mom and dad, experience far greater freedom but are also constrained by class and opportunity and circumstances. Interestingly, Lorna’s mother tastes a bit of freedom and empowerment during the war years and then is forced back into a more subservient role behind Lorna’s dad, who is both admirable and slightly pathetic with his war record and his own struggling business and his attempts at being in control.

The third aspect of Bad Blood that I loved was the way she brought in her love of literature, and combined it with gender politics. To read, and to be intelligent, and to love books as a teenage girl at that time was to marginalise yourself and that marginal position was compounded by her own fall from grace. Falling pregnant at the age of sixteen (which still somehow manages to retain an air of innocence about it) makes her an outsider, from where she gets to observe herself and her surroundings with a wonderfully sharp (and witty) eye.

And it is LS’s very disgraced nature that allows her to identify with all the other rebels in the world of literature. LS lists Milton’s Paradise Lost as one of the works that influenced her the most.

Another theme that I would pick out is that of conforming and resistance. If identities are constructed in countless ways through families, schools, churches, peers, friendships, neighbourhoods and the broader culture, then here we see the actors play with these identities and wrestle with the limits of what is and is not allowed. Grandmother goes to the movies and the real story that interests her is the ongoing story of the actors themselves. Jean Harlow is now having it off with another man on screen and this confirms for her that men are fickle and not to be trusted. Schoolgirls are required to wear uniforms but spend endless hours accessorising and subverting them. When Lorna and her best friend Gail hold hands they are seen as lesbians in the eyes of the boys. (I was also interested in my own reaction here since I was sure somehow that LS was a lesbian and that the story would gradually reveal this to be the case. Perhaps it was the picture of her with Angela Carter at the back of the book, or it was her defiance of conventions.)

The last aspect of Bad Blood which I loved (and which forced me to take periodic breaks to recover and take it all in) was the way it returned me to my own childhood and adolescence in a new way. That brilliant description of her first school dance for example had me laughing as well as cringing with embarrassment at the memories of my own matric dance.

All in all, one of the reading highlights of the year for me. Thanks, fellow Slaves.


12 Responses to Reflections on Bad Blood (Lorna Sage)

  1. What an enjoyable review, Pete. I’m putting it on my list.

  2. EL Fay says:

    Wow, what an insightful review. I would never have thought to analyze this book from a psychodynamic perspective. You got way more out of it than I did. I think the problem is I was looking at it as a novel instead of as a memoir. Its portrayal of ordinary people living an ordinary life ended up boring me. But maybe other people’s reviews will inspire me to try it again.

  3. litlove says:

    Yay! Pete, you’re a Slave, wonderful! And I loved this review – psychoanalytic lit crit is my very favouritest type. I’m also really interested in the way that identity is composite – I’ll have to think of something to say about that!

  4. Stefanie says:

    Love your approach to the book! It has really put some depth into it that I didn’t see before. Like El Fay, I think I tried to read it as a novel. Thanks for your insight!

  5. Danielle says:

    Hello. I’ve made my way here from Stefanie’s post and agree wholeheartedly with your response (though you explain why so much better than I ever could–and have added insights to what was peripherally in my mind that I couldn’t quite bring out to the fore) about why this was such an exceptional book. I thought it was so interesting too, how she applied literature to her life and tried to make sense of it–(and here I am going for the lowbrow) books like Forever Amber which show a woman doing everything wrong yet still succeeding/getting away with it–and how it didn’t exactly work in real life. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts–it makes my own reading and thinking about the book so much richer.

  6. doctordi says:

    Okay, so I came here straight from the Reading Room and now feel doubly energised and intrigued – I *must* get this book…!! I’m also really curious about what kind of recovery periods I’ll need from my own flashbacks…

  7. doctordi says:

    Forgot to say, Pete, this was an excellent, probing review.

  8. Grad says:

    Drat! I never had time to read this before the discussion. I’m like Doctordi – got to get it now.

  9. You and Litlove have sold me.

  10. Pete says:

    Lilian – I’m glad. Hope you enjoy it.

    EL Fay – I’ve been enjoying reading the different responses to Bad Blood. I agree that it doesn’t really work as a novel but as a memoir it’s really good.

    Litlove – Yes, am really enjoying being a Slave (or semi-slave, since I still need to figure out how to post there). Have just bought a new memoir (by a former lecturer) so am keen to see how it compares.

    Stefanie – Thanks. And likewise.

    Danielle – Thanks. I find it’s like being in bookclub again – I get so many insights from other people’s readings of the same book.

    DoctorDi – Thanks. Will be interested to hear what you think.

    Grad – Yay, another convert.

    David – Ditto.

  11. seachanges says:

    What a great approach to a wonderful biography. I loved this book.

  12. ian darling says:

    I am re-reading Lorna Sage’s fascinating and honest book. For anyone who enjoyed it i would strongly recommend Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home – a graphic memoir (as in graphic novel) that also explores the author’s relationships with parents and books in an extraordinarily detailed and imaginative way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: