It is a very significant conjunction of women’s lives, social change and geography that are linked in this absorbing account of five women who lived in Mecklenburgh Square, not all at the same time, from the years after the First World War and into the Blitz. They were pioneers in their own literary fields and also in the way they chose to live their lives.
I loved this book, for the details of the five lives:
- HD (Hilda Doolittle), an imagist poet and novelist;
- Dorothy L Sayers, one of the first Cambridge graduates and mostly known for her mystery novels;
- Jane Harrison, a classicist and scholar in Cambridge who revolutionised idea about women in the archaeological past;
- Eileen Power, who became a historian of the Middle Ages, specialising in the economic and female histories of that time, a professor at the LSE;
- and Virginia Woolf, bombed out of Tavistock Square, an important novelist, essayist and publisher.
Further, the manner in which Francesca Wade brings the lives together in this one London square enriches the account. The subtitle of this book reveals something of its contents: Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars.
The women in this book were hungry for knowledge in all its forms: knowledge of history and literature, knowledge of the wider world, and self-knowledge, no less difficult to obtain. A drive to expand ‘the province of women’ into new realms characterised all these lives, manifesting in their search for education, in their travels, their friendships, their work and in the way they made their homes. Their pursuit of a fulfilling way to live has resounded through the twentieth century. (337-8)
We read of their struggles to be treated on an equal footing with men in educational institutions, as students and teachers. We read of their passionate involvement in issues of the day, especially in securing a lasting peace after the end of the First World War. And most poignant perhaps, their attempts to find relationships with men that did not subsume their independence or their careers. All of the women, except Jane Harrison, married but often late in life, after negotiating terms that would allow them to continue their fulfilling lives. One thinks of Harriet Vane’s struggles with Lord Peter Wimsey’s regular marriage proposals in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.
Each of the women lived for a time in Mecklenburgh Square, with its mixed housing, including boarding houses, near to Bloomsbury. They were each seeking freedom from expectations of dependence in marriage and they enjoyed the intellectual society which allowed each of them to find a way to live. They struggled with the Victorian messages of their childhoods, and they tried to carve out more satisfying approaches in their personal lives as well as in their different literary and professional spheres.
Virginia Woolf permeates this account, setting the tone with the title which comes from her diary:
I like this London life in early summer – the street sauntering & square haunting. (20th April 1925)
She famously argued that women needed a private income and a room of their own in order to write.
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. [A Room of One’s Own, 1928 (6)]
Mecklenburgh Square was Virginia Woolf’s last London home. It is pleasing that Francesca Wade did not define Virginia Woolf’s life by her death (suicide), but shows us how her life interacted with so many literary people of the time, and how her work as a publisher was important in promoting their writing.
Their stories are well told, especially Virginia Woolf’s. And I was presented with some surprising information about Dorothy L Sayers’s life in the square. We learn of their contribution of all five women to the emancipation struggle, and to women’s literary achievements. An excellent book.
Square Haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars by Francesca Wade published in 2020 by Faber & Faber. 422pp
An excellent review of Square Haunting by Karen Langley (of the blog Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) can be found on the Shiny New Books review site, in which she points to the research that enriches Francesca Wade’s accounts of the lives of these women by relating it to the history of the square.
I reviewed Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers last year on Bookword, asking whether it is a who dunnit, or a romantic novel, or a feminist book?
Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf was posted on Bookword in March 2018.