When I was fifteen and a half I received a letter from my new friend Lorna Stockton which announced that she was reading T.S. Eliot, ‘in a tree’. I stared at these words in alarm: who was this T.S. Eliot? Trees, for me, were climbing frames full of cunningly shaped, preferably fatal, challenges to ascent and had no relation to books. Books were read indoors, stiffly, with both knees drawn together, at a table, the pages turned with quavering, elderly care. Lorna’s way of proceeding was always to have the book with you, whatever you were doing. She never really got on with copyright libraries; and, like a Scottish Presbyterian faced with the prospect of kneeling at an altar, she always stubbornly refused to sit in places like the British Museum. Besides, you had to leave the books there at night, and she always wanted them around her. Lorna’s idea was to take them home – or get her own bookseller.
So, I quickly learned there were other ways of reading. Lorna, at 16, in an armchair. There were two postures: front-facing, the knees drawn fiercely up, irrespective of skirts, often exposing whatever variety of underwear she had on, the face invisible under two firmly-drawn curtains of golden ropes, except for the nose, which received periodically a violent rubbing with the back of the knuckles – a habit she retained until her late twenties – or, draped sideways across the two arms in a recumbent S-shape. When the book did come to the table, it was apparently to eat with.
One morning in the summer of 1967 – by then, we were married – Lorna woke up and informed me it was time she ‘did some Scott’. She insisted on taking me with her to Crow’s bookshop in Upper St Giles Street, Norwich, and twenty minutes later we emerged in the July sunlight with me half a step behind her, like a footman, carrying the Collected Works of Scott, uniform, in the Magnum Opus edition, in a large cardboard box. At home the books were tipped out of the box and piled, the recumbent S-drape assumed, and then, over the next four or five weeks, one green volume after another was passed from the steadily diminishing pile by the grate and dropped back into the cardboard box. ‘Any good?’ I’d say, when I heard one go. ‘He goes off,’ the murmur would come back from under the ropes, as she turned to The Black Dwarf or Tales of My Landlord.
It’s typical that ‘doing some Scott’ meant reading all of him. Lorna always wanted to know for herself, with books and with people, what was there. She could never bear to leave a book she had even vaguely heard of unread, and this burning intellectual curiosity, combined with a memory like a butterfly-net and the keenest of linguistic antennae – Lorna was a fine and well read Latinist – made her at an early age into a casually first-rate scholar with a startling range of information, which was always delivered in her characteristic throwaway shorthand, but with finger-tip accuracy. You could look up anything she told you and find it where she said it was. The pace of living with books, the sheer grab for knowledge, was always rapid and urgent – Lorna was the fastest reader I have ever met – but their assimilation was never careless or unthorough.
Lorna knew Renaissance and 17th-century literature especially well: her book-length MA thesis at Birmingham was about ‘Poems on Poetry in the 17th Century’. At the kitchen table of our flat in City Road she discovered the self-conscious relation between theory and practice in poem after poem of that period: with cheerful greed she devoured the entire work of people like Cowley, Davenant and Waller, literally having them for breakfast between slices of toast. This was not surprising, because she already possessed the devious rhetorical habits of those poets. Lorna was impossibly guileful and persuasive in argument: she delighted, with Jesuitical glee, in demonstrating the truth of the most outrageous-sounding propositions, so that you somehow found yourself, a week later, treating what last week seemed preposterous and completely out of the question as self-evident, a matter of course; and she brought a fully modern, living consciousness to her 17th-century work without violating its historical dimension. I’m sure John Broadbent spotted this very rare quality in her when he invited her to edit parts of the Cambridge Milton in the early 1970s. I can remember the intense, tortuous, day-long arguments – inevitably in the kitchen, but this time our Norwich kitchen in St Giles Street – about Comus and the Lady. Why was the Lady stuck to the chair in Milton’s masque? I said it had to be sex – she was unconsciously attracted to her would-be seducer. Wasn’t there some gluey substance involved? Lorna snorted with derision at this kind of ignorant, kite-flying stuff, and took me by the hand through much of what I didn’t understand in Platonic aesthetics. Comus wasn’t speaking on the same level of being as the Lady. Eventually, she published a fine essay called ‘The Coherence of Comus’ which proposed a radical, but impeccably scholarly, set of solutions to the problems any reader of Milton’s masque will recognise.
The unspeakable adventure of the early Lorna may seem unfamiliar to some who know her only as a brilliant critic of contemporary women’s writing or the author of an extraordinary memoir about a rural childhood. The early Lorna was a passionate Renaissance and 17th-century scholar, and this training created for her a living Socratic dialogue between the historical – the broader view was always somehow the unexpected view – and her unshakable commitment to writing her own life and times. She continued to read and review books in this field and started to write a book on Plato and Platonism in the early 1970s. This book, for one reason or another, was only partly written when she started her Grub Street career of ‘moonlighting’ and ‘writing on the run’, as she calls it with a bohemian flourish in a recent essay entitled ‘Living on Writing’.The account in that essay is not quite true, or almost not quite true: in 1995, Lorna got a contract from Macmillan to finish the Plato book that many of us had been egging her on to finish over the years, and she had begun seriously to tackle this project again. I very much hope that some of this work – which links the world of the early Lorna with her later incarnations – will still see the light of day.