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 Si├Ęcle. 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.


Birdalone said...

It's good to see Sally's warm and generous personality together with her notable academic achievements so well recorded here. She was my tutor for a brief period when I was an undergraduate at Royal Holloway and I saw her often in seminars and at conferences as a postgraduate at Birkbeck. She was tremendously supportive to students and we all benefited from her remarkable knowledge of nineteenth-century literature and culture, as well as her unfailing sense of humour. And as the PhD candidate examined on Morris's last romances, the rigourous questioning, scholarly debate and good-humoured atmosphere I experienced in that viva was very much appreciated and will not be forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Professor Helen Taylor of Exeter University has sent me a comradely correction. Sally Ledger's 'News from Nowhere' article of June 1988 is pipped to the post by her contribution to the 1987'Literature Teaching Politics' journal (no 6). She cowrote 'Constructing Teachers' (pp.17-28) with Gillian Squirrel , of which Sally's part is 'From BA to PGCE: Some Versions of English'.

Anonymous said...

I,too, was shocked to read of Sally's death in the form of a letter to the local newspapers by her parents. I grew up and went to school with Sally and also remember collecting polling cards from outside the polling stations with her parents and my mother, also a staunch Labour Party member. I also suffered devastation at their election defeats to the Tories although had lost touch with her family by then.How strange to find out that Sally had gone on to such an enormous career in Literature, particularly as I completed a degree a couple of years ago (late starter) in English and History, including a dissertation on Dickens.How strange is life? I would, like many others, love the opportunity to speak to her now, but sadly that is never to be.

Trevor Ledger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trevor Ledger said...

After eight months it still comes as a pleasant surprise to read such kind words about my big sister. Thank you.
During the (successful) 1970 Wilson campaign I too was collecting polling cards and delivering them to the committee rooms. I was just four years old and it fell to Sally and a friend (was it you Alison?) to carry me home at bed time, I screamed with rage all the way from what I can remember!
I maintained such a childish approach to politics and burned my Labour membership the day that Blair set his evil plans into motion. Sally was far more grown up than I ever was!
Like you, her husband and child and everyone that met her; I miss her so very much.

Tony Pinkney said...

The British Association for Victorian Studies has started a travel bursary for postgraduates in Sally's memory. Here are the details from the BAVS website:

The Sally Ledger Memorial Travel Bursary is named in honour of the distinguished Victorianist and supporter of BAVS, Professor Sally Ledger, who died in 2009. In recognition of Sally’s commitment and dedication to her postgraduate students, the BAVS Executive decided to establish a fund in her honour. The bursary is for £500 and supports a UK postgraduate to travel to the NAVSA annual meeting. It is part of our ongoing commitment to postgraduates, in helping to provide professional experience and training for the next generation of Victorianists. The award is only made to a student whose application to NAVSA’s conference committee has been deemed successful in the competitive process to deliver a paper at the NAVSA event on the grounds of highest academic quality and relevance to the conference theme.

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