by Francesca Wade
Publication Date: January 14, 2020
An engrossing group portrait of five women writers, including Virginia Woolf, who moved to London's Mecklenburgh Square in search of new freedom in their life and work.
"I like this London life . . . the street-sauntering and square-haunting."--Virginia Woolf, diary, 1925
In the early twentieth century, Mecklenburgh Square--a hidden architectural gem in London's Bloomsbury--was a radical address, home to students, struggling artists, and revolutionaries. And in the pivotal era between the two world wars, the lives of five remarkable women intertwined around this one address: the modernist poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. In an era when women's freedoms were fast expanding, they each sought a space where they could live, love, and--above all--work independently.
With sparkling insight and a novelistic style, Francesca Wade sheds new light on a group of artists and thinkers whose pioneering work would enrich the possibilities of women's lives for generations to come.
Officially, Halloween bingo is over, and has been a rousing success, as always. I blacked out my bingo card, and then some. You can find my In Memoriam page here.
With that introduction, I’m moving into a different part of my reading year. I can’t say that I won’t be reading mysteries, because by far the most consistent genre I read is mystery, and especially vintage mystery. In addition, with the holidays rapidly approaching, I will be pulling out winter/Christmas themed mysteries and stories. But, as well, I am trying something new this year – November is Middlebrow Month for me, and I will be directing my attention, and my content, to books that were written by British women between 1910 and 1960.
Which brings me to Square Haunting – a book that I actually finished in August. This review has been sitting in my “scheduled” reviews since before September 1, waiting to drop. This is a fairly rare occurrence for me – I typically only write up reviews one or two days before they post. This is also a non-fiction book, which is also fairly rare for me.
The title of the book is presumably taken from a Virgina Woolf essay called Street Haunting, a London Adventure, which a friend and fellow blogger, BrokenTune, linked to in a thread on Goodreads. I haven’t read very much Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse as a young(er) reader, but none of her essays or other books. I found Street Haunting to be a delightful essay about the glories of “Town” living:
As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter–rambling the streets of London.
BrokenTune had also been reading Square Haunting, which looked intriguing, so I added it to my library hold list and started reading as soon as it came up. It took me a week or so to finish it – I often struggle with nonfiction – and I loved it. So much that I have since bought a copy of the book for my own shelves.
The premise of the book is unique – miniature biographies of five British women, all of whom ended up living in the same Bloomsbury square (Mecklenburg square) between 1919 and 1940. The women are: Hilda Doolitle (who went by H.D.), Dorothy Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and, of course, Virginia Woolf. Of the five, I had only previously read (or even heard of, to be frank) Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf. H.D. was a poet, Jane Harrison was a classical scholar and Eileen Power was a medievalist. All five women were members of the “Bloomsbury group” in some capacity or another; all but Woolf were serious scholars who attended either Oxford or Cambridge, but who were unable to receive degrees at the time of their “graduation.”
Ultimately, the women who graduated from an Oxford womens college were awarded degrees – the University passed a retroactive statute in October, 1920. It took until 1948 for Cambridge University to do the right thing and grant degrees to women, a full quarter century later.
But, I digress into an area that will simply enrage me, so back to Square Haunting. I so thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in any of the five women profiled, the Bloomsbury Group, or feminist history. Their lives were fascinating. They were privileged, sure – a group of intellectually brilliant women from backgrounds that were sufficient to grant them entrance in one of the Oxbridge Universities in the late 19th or early 20th century when places for women were scant indeed.
Nonetheless, each of them, in her own way, chose a life that was completely different from what she had been brought up to expect. And each woman supported herself in a world where women didn’t really do that. They were expected to use their intelligence and their resourcefulness to help the men who chose them in their careers, not have a career of their own.
As Dorothy Sayers writes, in Strong Poison, her first Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey mystery:
“Genius must be served, not argued with,” sniffs an associate of Boyes’s, insisting that Harriet poisoned her lover out of jealousy at his superior intellect. A friend of Harriet’s puts it differently, summing up the attitude a successful woman writer had to contend with: “She ought to have been ministering to his work, not making money for them both with her own independent trash.”
Nonetheless, as Wade says “Harriet knows her own worth, and refuses to spare Boyes’s ego by diminishing her own achievements.”
With respect to the fourth woman profiled, Eileen Power, she “was very conscious that, as Jane Harrison put it in 1914, “the virtues supposed to be womanly are in the main the virtues generated by subordinate social position.” Like Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote in her caustic 1938 essay “Are Women Human?” that it was “repugnant…to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person,” Power railed against the social system which “is so anxious for people to be correct that it effectually prevents them from being true.”
Virginia Woolf lived in Mecklenburgh Square quite a bit later than the preceding four, and her residence occurred at least partially during the Blitz. Her connection is the most tenuous – she lived there a very short time, and spent much of the time she lived at her home in the country. When she left Mecklenburgh Square, she left London for good. Many of the homes in the square were leveled in the Blitz.
The most engaging thing about the book was the overview of the intellectual life of the five women and their social group – it was a veritable who’s who of interwar British literary and scholarly society, and just tracking the other women authors who were mentioned as a delight – Rose Macauley, Elizabeth Bowen, Agatha Christie (of course – although she wasn’t a part of this very Bohemian group of individuals), Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain are just some of the names mentioned.
After finishing, I picked up Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession, which covers many of these same novelists. And it inspired, at least in part, the next few months of my reading plans. I don’t think that there could be a higher recommendation than that?