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Professor Sally Ledger: obituary

Professor Sally Ledger: obituary

The Department of English and Humanities is in mourning at the sudden death of Professor Sally Ledger. Our thoughts are with her family, particularly her husband Jim and son Richard.

Sally had only just left the department in September 2008 to take up the Hildred Carlile Chair in English at Royal Holloway College and to become their Director of Research and Director of the Centre for Victorian Studies. Because she remained so involved in collaborative projects with so many of us, we still claimed her as one of our own.

Sally joined the Birkbeck department in 1995 after doing a PhD in Oxford with Terry Eagleton and teaching in Exeter and Bristol as a lecturer in Victorian Studies. Her scholarship, commitment to collaboration, passion for teaching, and brilliance as a diplomat took her on a rapid and stellar rise through the ranks and she was appointed Professor of Victorian Studies in 2005. At a moment of transition in the School in 2002, she typically for Sally stepped forward and took on the role of the Head of School. In those years, she oversaw a large expansion of the School and took it in new, innovative directions. She was absolutely central to the formation of programmes on Creative Writing, Theatre Studies and our unique MFA in theatre directing. She reshaped the 19th-century staff after several important figures retired. She also had an uncanny knack for seeking out and appointing brilliant yet sympathetic young academics at the start of their careers whatever their specialism. Her legacy at Birkbeck will long survive in the host of distinct programmes each of which have been driven by strong working and personal bonds between the members of staff. In a large and diverse School, Sally’s ability to manage the weight of administration and those often tricky academic personalities was little short of awe-inspiring. She refused guile or back-room dealing for an absolutely straight sense of fair play and justice. It is rare indeed for someone to balance so many competing investments with such good grace and humour.

Somehow, during this time, Sally also educated a whole generation of doctoral students in the Victorian period, people now scattered around the country in various posts, but who retain the distinct mark of her rigorous but gentle teaching. Her message to them was the wisdom of always balancing work with family, life and love. Sometimes academia just had to be cast aside – especially when Chelsea Football Club were playing at home. This has also been very hard news for a graduate community Sally worked with so enthusiastically.

It is particularly desperate to lose Sally at the moment when her research career was undoubtedly about to make her a figure of leading international importance in Victorian Studies. In the last few weeks she had spoken at Yale and the MLA in San Francisco, and was about to speak as a keynote at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. She was becoming an important figure in the Dickens Project run at the University of California in Santa Cruz, a city she loved. The vast army of the Dickens Fellowship in London had also taken her into their arms with the conference she helped to organise each year. This growing reputation came from two important books The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle (Manchester University Press, 1997) and Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2007), both of which are very highly regarded. It was a sign of her curiosity and roving intelligence that she aimed to reinvent her intellectual framework for each project, rather than specialising narrowly. Her latest project on Victorian Sentimentality had taken her further back into the 18th century. You could pass her class-rooms and overhear the uproarious laughter of the students as she read out passages from sentimental novels. She wrote a short and insightful introduction to Henrik Ibsen for the Writers and their Work series in 1999. She also edited a host of other books, typically in collaboration with others, including The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History (with Roger Luckhurst, Oxford University Press, 2000), and Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle (with Scott McCracken, Cambridge University Press, 1995). In recent years, she had been the energy behind the Centre for 19th Century Studies, a collaborative research base. Sally had co-founded this with Isobel Armstrong, Jo McDonagh and other prominent figures in the field and was endlessly inventive in seeking new funds and establishing new projects.

Because she worked so tirelessly through centres and collectives, her loss will be felt by a very large number of people around the world. We, too, are desolate.

Issued: 8 September 2009

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