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Obituary: Professor Sally Ledger

Former Head of Birkbeck's School of English and Humanities

The School of English and Humanities is in mourning at the sudden death of Professor Sally Ledger on 21 January, 2009. Sally was a vibrant presence at Birkbeck from 1995 until she left last summer to take up the prestigious Hildred Carlisle Chair at Royal Holloway. Many friends, colleagues and students gathered at 30 Russell Square on 20 February to remember her, and to celebrate her great gift of life.The large space was packed to overflowing, and we heard many heartfelt tributes to a remarkable woman who touched so many people's lives.

When Sally died, it was extraordinary to experience the shockwaves as news of her death rippled out across the world, each time zone bringing a deluge of emails expressive of the great global grief at her loss, from the east coast to the west coast of the US, and then Australasia, as far away as Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand, where within a week Sally was to have delivered a keynote paper at the Australasian Victorian Studies Association Conference.

At the heart of that radiating presence, at the centre of Sally's life, affirming and sustaining her as she blossomed professionally, was her family: Jim Porteous her husband, and Richard her son. And at the centre of her professional life for many years were Sally's friends, students and colleagues at Birkbeck, especially in this School, and the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. How privileged we all are to have had the opportunity to work closely, and party, with a woman so widely loved and so deeply mourned across the world.

Part of that privilege was, of course, to have worked with a very brilliant academic, who played a key role in redefining the field of nineteenth-century studies. In 1997, two years after joining Birkbeck, Sally published The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle, a truly ground-breaking study of late Victorian women writers and radicals that reclaimed a body of work and a cultural moment that had hitherto suffered a critical neglect now unimaginable. Her readings of fiction at the Fin are wonderfully alert to its ideological contradictions, and to how the politics of gender, race and class are worked out in literary form. Her reputation in the field was consolidated with the publication of three edited volumes on the political and cultural history of the Fin de Siècle, and a book on Henrik Ibsen; she was made Professor at Birkbeck in 2005.

From writing on the under-studied and decidedly non-canonical writers of the Fin, Sally shifted her attention to that most canonical of high Victorian writers, Charles Dickens. At the local level, she took over the organisation of Dickens Day, which has long been associated with Birkbeck, and transformed it into a cutting-edge annual conference. And on the international stage she became centrally involved in the Dickens Project convened by the University of California at Santa Cruz. Despite the demands of being a dynamic and popular Head of School from 2002 to 2005, she published Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination in 2007, an acclaimed book which has changed the way we read Dickens by contextualising his work within the vibrant dissenting political culture of the 1830s and 1840s. Her academic interests in the popular and the radical convey the essence of Sally’s politics and passions, as did her new work, on sentimentality, speak of the importance of the emotional and affective life for this warm, loving woman.

Her work was enviably well integrated into the rest of her life. Her great erudition notwithstanding, she was immersed in popular culture, from shopping to music to football, and was partial to the latest slang. And her colleagues and students became, seamlessly, her friends. She brought to her professional and intellectual life a real humanity, so that her warmth, her generosity, her integrity and sense of justice, her fearless honesty, her irrepressible sense of humour, fed into her scholarship and her academic leadership in incalculably significant ways.

Sally, we miss you. But how lucky we are to have had you in our lives, and as often as I have wept over you these past few weeks, I have smiled at the happy memories you have left us, and the inspiration to be better people.