Saturday 21 February 2009

News from Nowhere, Oxford, 1986-91

News from Nowhere (ISSN 0957-1868) was the journal of Oxford English Limited (OEL), a group of socialist and feminist students battling for progressive reforms within the Oxford University English Faculty between 1982 and 1992. Nine issues were published between 1986 and 1991 under the editorship of Tony Pinkney, and full details of its contents issue by issue are now available in the Wikipedia entry on the journal. It invoked William Morris’s Marxism and utopianism as an inspiration in its own struggles to get literary theory and cultural studies taken seriously within an intellectually conservative Oxford English Faculty. Readers of this blog might be interested in such pieces as ‘Nineteenth-Century Studies: As They Are and As They Might Be’ (no 2, October 1986, 38-55) and ‘Postmodern Space and Morris’s Utopia’ (no 9, Autumn 1991, 28-49). No 9, the final issue, is devoted to ‘Utopias and Utopianism’, so the journal went out on an appropriately upbeat and future-orientated note; it contains an interview with Fredric Jameson on Postmodernism and Utopia, and articles by Ruth Levitas, Terry Eagleton, John Goode and Diana Knight, among others. A one-volume selection from the OEL News from Nowhere will be published in the near future.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Professor Sally Ledger, 1961-2009

I certainly share the shock of the Victorian Studies community at the sudden and premature death of my friend Sally Ledger on 21 January 2009. There have already been many warm tributes and obituaries, but these have mostly concentrated on her later professional life and have, in my view, been rather coy about her politics.

I first met Sally when she arrived at Oxford University as a postgraduate to work with Terry Eagleton on Mark Rutherford, and to me she remains in memory the eager lass she then was just as much as the distinguished academic she later became. Sally quickly and enthusiastically joined our group, Oxford English Limited (OEL), as we battled to reform the Oxford English Faculty. Indeed, a review on ‘The Peculiarities of Englishness’ in our journal, News from Nowhere, may be the first piece of academic writing that she published (no 5, June 1988, pp.90-93).

Sally was a hardworking socialist in those days, canvassing busily for the Oxford Labour Party during the General Election campaign of 1987. She and I stayed up all night together on election day itself to watch the results. Early exit polls gave a misleading sense that Labour could take victory, so as the night wore on and the true result became apparent Sally grew increasingly upset at the prospect of yet more years under the political ice-age of Thatcherism. She welcomed the ‘New Labour’ victory of 1997, but had few illusions about what New Labour would turn out to be in practice. But she did not take the step I myself made about that time, of joining the Green Party as a political presence to the left of Labour.

Sally Ledger went on to make a formidable reputation in Victorian studies, perhaps above all through her 1997 study, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle. She never, as far as I know, wrote about William Morris at length, but I’m sure would have recognised Ellen in News from Nowhere as a socialist ‘New Woman’ of the kind she was most interested in. I should, as I can now see, have pressed Sally to write in depth on Morris; hers would have been such an important voice to hear on him. But of course there seemed plenty of time, and she had many other pressing professional commitments.

But it was, I am glad to say, a Morrisian occasion on which Sally and I last worked closely together, when we served as examiners at Birkbeck College in January 2006 for Phillippa Bennett’s splendid Ph.D. dissertation on the notion of wonder in William Morris’s late romances. We had lunch at a trendy restaurant called ‘Revolution’, appropriately enough. And ‘wonder’ is the right note, I think, with which to recall and say farewell to Sally Ledger, as an extraordinary woman who was so full of energy and projects, not just for academic Victorian Studies, but also towards a wider utopian transformation of the capitalist society in which we live.