Tag Archives: brit lit

A Middlebrow Month

Square HauntingSquare Haunting
by Francesca Wade
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 14, 2020
Genre: non-fiction
Pages: 432

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?

Love is like a white rabbit?

Excellent WomenExcellent Women
by Barbara Pym
Publication Date: December 26, 1952
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 231
Project: a century of women

Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those "excellent women," the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors--anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door--the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

This review does contain some mild spoilers, although this is not a book that is particularly suspenseful, nor does it rely on a mystery to move the plot forward.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

And so we meet Mildred Lathbury, the first person narrator of Excellent Women, Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952. The book opens with the arrival of a new resident in Mildred’s building – Helena Napier, whose husband, Rockingham, has not returned from Italy, where he was stationed with the Navy. Helena is a type of woman that is almost completely foreign to Mildred – an anthropologist with little interest in her marriage, and less interest in housekeeping, cooking or church, the things that Mildred understands the best.

I loved Mildred – she is a bit bewildered by her new neighbors, but is also unapologetically interested in the oddness of their lives. She is a sheltered gentlewoman who, over the course of Excellent Women, allows a talent for mild rebellion to emerge. Her attitude is generally one of rueful irony, and there are times that she is positively funny. She, rather than Helena, might have been the anthropologist, but the object of her study is the doings of post-war Brits, especially her neighbors.

In addition to the Napiers, Everard Bone, one of Helena’s colleagues, ends up insinuating himself into Mildred’s life. There is much scandal around Helena’s relationship with Everard, and Mildred finds herself in the middle of it. One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Everard, lurking about waiting for her to leave work, persuades her to go for a drink with him.

“Women are quite impossible to understand sometimes.”
I pondered over this remark for a while, asking myself what it was going to lead up to, and then wondered why had been so stupid as not to realise that he wanted to say something about Helena Napier…

And, he does want to say something about Helena Napier, who has been behaving most indiscreetly, indeed. The two of them have been seen by their colleagues, at a time when they should not have been together.

“I suppose you would not want to marry Helena even if she were free. I mean, divorced would be against your principles.”
“Naturally”, he said stiffly. And I don’t love her anyway.”
“Oh, poor Helena. I think she may love you,” I said rashly.
“I’m sure she does,” said Everard in what seemed to be a satisfied tone. “She has told me so,”
“Oh, no! Not without encouragement! Do women declare themselves like that?”
“Oh, yes. It is not so very unusual.”
“But what did you tell her?”
“I told her that it was quite impossible that I should love her.”
“You must have been rather startled,”I said, “Unless you had expected it, and perhaps you had if it can happen. But it must have been like having something like a large white rabbit thrust into your arms and not knowing what to do with it.”

So, on the one hand, we have the Napiers, whose relationship and marital breakdown causes much upset in her home, and then on the other hand, we have Allegra Gray, who moves in with her vicar, Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, and immediately makes a play for Julian. Mildred, as a single woman, is accepted as the person who is going to deal with the fall out from this arrangement: is Allegra going to marry Julian? Is Winifred going to have to move out?

I loved Mildred’s reaction when Winifred shows up at her house, hair disarranged and somewhat wild, wearing no hat or coat and sodden bedroom slippers, and asks if she can move in – poor Mildred sees all of her independence disappearing before her very eyes as Winifred explains that she has disliked Allegra since Lady Farmer’s lilies ended up on the floor.

“Oh, but, Mildred, I hoped I could come and live with you,” said Winifred with appalling simplicity.
For a moment I was too taken aback to say anything and I knew that I must think carefully before I answered.”

Reading Excellent Women, I was reminded of Jane Austen, and especially of Anne Elliott after she turned down Captain Wentworth. Mildred is fighting against a culture that wants to deny her value because she is an unmarried gentlewoman – and therefore her emotional and physical labor are available to her community with or without her consent. Contrast Mildred with school headmistress Sarah Burton from South Riding, a book I read in December 2018, published decades earlier in 1936, who says of herself.

“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.

But although Mildred is a much gentler person, must more quiescent and willing to accept societal boundaries, she’s not a pushover. It’s frustrating to her that everyone believes that she is crushed by Julian getting engaged to Allegra Gray, because they assume she wanted him for herself. But she didn’t and she doesn’t, and she can’t protest because they will assume she is lying to protect her pride. And her relationship with Everard, it seems, is to be one of friendship, once Rockingham and Helena Napier make up their silly quarrel and reunite. He has asked her to help him in his work, and she has acquiesced – this may lead to marriage or it may not.

I just don’t get the feeling, at the end of the book, that she wants to marry anyone – and she’s decided that on her own.

She says of herself:

And then another picture came into my mind. Julian Malory, standing by the electric fire, wearing his speckled mackintosh, holding a couple of ping-pong bats and quoting a not very appropriate bit of Keats. He might need to be protected from the women who were going to live in his house. So, what with my duty there and the work I was going to do for Everard, it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called “a full life” after all.

I hope so, Mildred. I hope you got everything you wanted, and then some. Not every woman needs to be married to find purpose. Not even in 1952.

I’m also going to link to an article from 2013, the centenary of Barbara Pym’s birth, written by Philip Hensher that talks about Barbara Pym and her career. She wrote a total of 13 books, divided into two distinct periods. Excellent Women is from her first period, and then her publisher dropped her in 1962. She wasn’t able to find a publisher again until Philip Larkin helped her to resurrect her career in 1977. Link to the article here.