UEA Live: celebrating Lorna Sage’s life

As UEA Live celebrates 50 years of its Creative Writing MA, Wednesday’s discussion was about another anniversary: Lorna Sage’s memoir Bad Blood is turning 20. Chaired by Kathryn Hughes, this discussion of Sage’s life and book seems better described as a collective appreciation.

From the speakers’ fond words, it is clear that the life of Sage was one of great influence; a fiercely intelligent writer who defied the boundaries facing her gender and became a well-loved UEA professor. Hughes commemorated Sage’s 20-year-old memoir with Victor Sage and Sharon Tolaini-Sage, (Lorna’s husband and daughter who are ‘characters’ in the book and academics themselves), and bestselling author Louise Doughty, who met Sage while studying the UEA Creative Writing MA.

The event involved a chosen excerpt of Bad Blood from each panel member, followed by discussion. There was such a warm atmosphere, and it was evident from the start that Sage was not only revered academically but also deeply loved. Her husband, Victor would nod along to his daughter’s praises, and it was easy to be moved by his declaration that, in meeting Lorna as a teenager, he felt that he “found myself for the first time in [his] life, in the presence of beauty”. You got a sense that all four speakers had been profoundly influenced by having known Sage.

Sage taught at UEA, becoming Dean of School in English and American studies, and Hughes and Doughty met her through her Norwich-based academic career. One thing that was emphasised throughout was Sage’s fierce intelligence. Bad Blood draws on Sage’s vast literary intellect, and the discussion turned to the novelistic style of this memoir, touching on its Gothic first paragraph (read by Sharon Tolaini-Sage), detailing a scene from Lorna’s somewhat shocking childhood in her grandfather’s vicarage. Gothic expert Victor Sage was also quick to suggest that, reading John Polidori in later life, the Vampyre made parallels to his wife’s depiction of the reverend in Bad Blood.

They also discussed Sage’s love for flat characters – “I didn’t want to meet lifelike characters” – and why it was actually flattering that she saw Victor as flat. Doughty was clearly inspired by Sage’s characterisation, encouraging all budding novelists to read Bad Blood on this basis alone, as well as praising her ability to use description at more than just surface-level. Bad Blood is a book steeped in a love of literature.

The other main take-away from the event was just how extraordinary Sage’s achievements were. Doughty discussed meeting Sage at a party and finding her to be living proof that a woman could be “chatty, bold and clever”, all these things and more. It was repeated that Sage was not afraid to be unlikeable, a difficult thing for a woman of her generation to do. She was a teenage mother, who faced challenges that men of her time simply would not have had to.  

Her daughter mentioned a series of photographs of male Deans at UEA, amongst whom is the singular, lone woman, a Dean twice over. “She went on being the impossible person,” Sharon smiled, “throughout her life, actually”. Along with a new 20th Anniversary edition of Bad Blood being released, these photos are going into the university’s archive, and discussions are taking place about a Lorna Sage exhibition.


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Molly Phillips

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January 2022
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