Loving Lorna

Moments of Truth: twelve twentieth-century women writers

Lorna Sage <em>Fourth Estate, 272pp, £15

Lorna Sage's main concern in these 12 essays, which date mostly from the 1990s, is to look intently at the threads that connect women's writing lives with the actual stuff of life - tricky husbands, competitive friendships, mothers who won't let go. Sage, who died earlier this year, produced this work during a decade when "the author" had been dead for at least 20 years, and yet the "self" had never been more vocal, popping up everywhere in a flood of memoirs, travel narratives and first-person novels. In this uneven critical climate, Sage wanted to see whether it was possible to think about women writers in a way that neither denied their historical presence as professional (or, more accurately, vocational) writers, nor reduced their texts to touched-up autobiography.

Sage's concerns were eerily prescient, given what has happened to her own reputation as a writer in the past 12 months. Before Bad Blood - her memoir of a sly, dirty, bookish childhood lived out in the shadow of her "Old Devil" of a clerical grandfather - appeared last September, Sage's work was known only to a smallish constituency. Although she made a point of writing well beyond the usual boundaries of the tenured academic, anyone who was not a reader of the Observer books pages in the early 1980s might well have missed her. But after the publication of Bad Blood, which was an unlikely bestseller and won the Whitbread Award for Biography (poignantly, just a few weeks before her death), not having heard of Lorna Sage constituted a kind of style crime.

It is this sudden interest in Sage's life that explains why these essays are now packaged in a "trade" publication aimed at the general reader who buys books for no other reason than wanting to. Perhaps the clearest sign that Fourth Estate (which also brought out Bad Blood) has identified Sage as the selling point, rather than the women she is writing about, is the front cover. Instead of a pedestrian montage of Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Carter, Edith Wharton and the nine other subjects (the usual way these things are done), we have a numinous photograph of Sage herself, taken in what appears to be the late Sixties, when she was in her beautiful prime.

None of this is anyone's fault - not Sage's, not her publisher's, nor that of the buyer of the book. But it does make doubly interesting Sage's careful readings of her subjects' lives and work. Her title, Moments of Truth, refers, she says, to that particular point in time when "each writer discovered her voice, found her calling or failed to, or remade herself as an author en route". According to Sage, this moment is most likely to happen when the writer decides to work against the grain of what is expected or assumed of her, often by other female intellectuals. In an excellent essay on her friend Angela Carter, Sage shows how Carter was never fooled for a moment by the idea that folk tales, especially as set down by Perrault or the Brothers Grimm, represented some timeless peasant past. She saw them as supporting strands in a historically specific realist narrative, and worked hard to turn them inside out so that they could be made to work differently and for now (or rather then, since it is 22 years ago that The Bloody Chamber was published).

Again, in the longest piece included in this collection, Sage suggests that, far from being a writer and admirer of realist fiction, Simone de Beauvoir should be classed with the nouveau romanistes such as Nathalie Sarraute, who set about dismantling traditional notions of character. De Beauvoir, Sage persuasively argues, assumed that the contaminating effects of fiction started earlier, right at the point where people put themselves together in their own minds. By the time they crop up as characters in a narrative - even one that prides itself on being mimetic - they already consist of a cloudy mix of the real and the imagined. It was a position to which de Beauvoir would return again and again in her thinking and writing, especially on women. Since we are all cultural constructs, rather than the creation of either God or mother, it should be perfectly possible to move beyond the limits of what appears to be possible. Only "bad faith" - de Beauvoir's favourite phrase, which had great resonance for Sage - can trap us in the false consolations of second-rate writing and living.

In many of the obituaries that paid tribute to Sage after her death in January this year, much was made of her impatience with the showily opaque language of postwar literary criticism. Instead, it is true, she chose to write in a way that combined absolute precision of meaning with a pleasurable elegance. But let no one assume that there is anything easy about these essays. They are toughly clever, making no concessions to those who can't keep up. Moments of Truth is the kind of book that demands one raises one's game, both as a writer and a reader. And that, one assumes, is what Lorna Sage was all about.

Kathryn Hughes is a biographer and critic

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?