Sally Ledger (19612009), by Jim Porteous, 2005
Ledger, Sally (19612009), literary scholar, was born at 103 Orchard Way, East Grinstead, Sussex, on 14 December 1961, the only daughter of William David Ledger (b. 1936), aircraft cleaner, later local government officer, and his wife, Barbara Olive, née Surridge (b. 1936). She had two brothers, Andrew (b. 1959) and Trevor (b. 1966). After early years and schooling in Crawley, she decided to study the flute and spent a year in France, where she perfected fluent French. She changed direction in 1982, entering Queen Mary College, University of London, and graduating in 1985 with a first-class degree in English. She won the George Smith prize, awarded for the best performance in English across the University of London. She went on to Oxford where, under the supervision of Terry Eagleton, famous for his Marxism and iconoclasm, she completed doctoral research on the nineteenth-century writer, Mark Rutherford (William Hale White), and combined this with vigorous campaigning for the Labour Party. While still a research student she married on 13 February 1988 James Richard (Jim) Porteous (b. 1955), schoolteacher and educationist, and son of Malcolm Douglas Edward Porteous, productions manager. This warm and supportive marriage consolidated her wide interests outside academia, particularly a love of walking and of football. She and her husband were committed Chelsea fans. They had one son, Richard (b. 1992).
After completing her DPhil in 1991 Ledger was appointed Caroline Spurgeon fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, followed by lectureships in Victorian studies at the universities of Exeter and the West of England, when the family moved to Bristol. Her longest period of professional life was at Birkbeck College, University of London, from 1995 to 2008, where she became a reader in 2001 and professor in 2005. It was there that her international reputation grew as a leading authority on Victorian literature and culture. Birkbeck's mission to give mature students a second chance for higher education chimed with her values. She was an inspirational and generous teacher, supervising twenty-one PhD students, and influencing a generation of researchers. She was a founder member of the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, and when she became chair of the school of English in her last years at the college, she developed innovative MA programmes in creative writing and the performing arts. She had a genius for administration. Colleagues regarded her as an outstanding chair of the school, with the gift of charm, fairness, and diplomacy as well as a buoyant sense of humour that enabled her to deal robustly with academic sensitivities. The confidence and high spirits with which she ran the school culminated in a research awayday held at the home of Chelsea football club. Her pleasure in fashion was infectious.
Ledger delighted in collaboration, editing collections of essays and anthologies with Josephine McDonagh, Scott McCracken, and Roger Luckhurst, with whom she co-edited the important collection, Fin de Siècle: a Reader in Cultural History (2000), which became a standard text for interdisciplinary masters courses. In her own innovative research and scholarship she had an instinctive grasp of the way to make strong interventions into scholarly debates. Her first book, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle (1997), uncovered the work of forgotten writers and radicals of the period, going beyond the familiar figures of Eleanor Marx and Olive Schreiner to working-class women such as Margaret Harkness, and exploring the new woman's relationship not only to sexuality but to socialism and imperialism. A short study of Henrik Ibsen (1999) was followed by her major book, Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination (2007), a completely new departure that changed the direction of Dickens studies. Written with authoritative strength and directness the book argued, drawing upon cartoons, popular melodrama, and print culture, that Dickens belonged to a rich radical tradition of political dissent in popular lampoon and satire active since the Regency. Her next research widened philosophically and historically. It was to be on the history of sentimentality from the Enlightenment onwards.
Ledger was known for the grace and efficiency with which she organized international conferences and particularly Birkbeck's annual Dickens day. Her resourceful and buoyant intellectual energy was recognized internationally. She made powerful contributions to the Dickens project, based at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She lectured on Victorian sentimentality at Yale and at the Modern Languages Association in San Francisco. She planned lectures in Jerusalem and to the Australasian Victorian Studies Association.
In 2008 Ledger was appointed to the Hildred Carlile chair and directorship of the Centre for Victorian Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. On the executive committee of the British Association of Victorian Studies, ever a leader, she planned a summit meeting of Victorian studies centres in the UK. But on 21 January 2009, as she prepared the family dinner in their Letchworth home, she suffered a sudden brain haemorrhage; she was pronounced dead at the Lister Hospital, Stevenage. She was survived by her husband, Jim, and son, Richard.
The Guardian (28 Jan 2009) · Times Higher Education Supplement (5 Feb 2009) · The Independent (7 Feb 2009) · Professor Sally Ledger, 19612009, humanities.exeter.ac.uk · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.
J. Porteous, photograph, 2005, University of London, Royal Holloway [see illus.] · obituary photographs