The square circle…

A book about the eminent literary women who lived in a small area of Bloomsbury absorbs Maggie Gruner

Thursday, 30th January 2020 — By Maggie Gruner

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

WALKING through Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, by chance one evening led Tufnell Park author Francesca Wade to make a startling discovery.

After seeing a blue plaque commemorating poet Hilda (known as HD) Doolittle, Francesca read about the square, which she’d never heard of before, and was astonished to learn that so many other women writers had lived there in the early 20th century.

In her debut book, Square Haunting, she opens a door into the lives of five females who made their homes in Mecklenburgh Square – women who broke the mould of society’s expectations and refused to let their gender hold them back.

Two of them, detective novel writer Dorothy L Sayers and writer and publisher Virginia Woolf, who said a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write, are famous.

Dorothy L Sayers and ­Eileen Power

The other three, also trailblazers, are modernist poet HD, classicist and translator Jane Ellen Harrison and historian and broadcaster Eileen Power.

Extensively researched, the book spotlights each woman’s time in the square.

Although today Bloomsbury flats cost millions, in the inter-war years the area wasn’t the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. Francesca told Review that Bloomsbury between the wars was “the heart of a really international community of free thinkers, who congregated there attracted by low rents and like-minded neighbours”.

The women in her book lived in Mecklenburgh Square at separate times, though one or two knew each other. What they were seeking there, the author suspects, was “everything Woolf had urged women writers to pursue: a room of their own, both literal and symbolic; a domestic arrangement which would help them to live, work, love and write as they desired.”

Sayers lived at 44 Mecklenburgh Square from December 1920 to December 1921, working on her first novel, Whose Body?, with its monocle-wearing hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. He gave her enough material for several further novels, bringing her fame and fortune.

Clever, independent Harriet Vane, a character in Sayers’s later books, lives in Mecklenburgh Square.

Sayers’ first-floor room, which, she wrote to her parents, had “three great windows”, a balcony looking onto the square, and a gas ring, was the same room HD Doolittle had occupied from 1916 to 1918.

Eileen Power made 20 Mecklenburgh Square her home for nearly two decades.

A medieval specialist, later appointed chair in economic history at the London School of Economics, Power was “jubilant” in January 1922 at finding “a charming half-house in Mecklenburgh Square, looking onto an enormous garden of trees”.

Jane Ellen Harrison and ­HD Doolittle

She held regular “kitchen dances” at her home, attended by economists, politicians and novelists, including Virginia Woolf, who recalled sharing a packet of chocolate creams there with a senior civil servant.

Widely travelled Power – she’d met Gandhi in India – collaborated with her sister on history books for children and was a BBC broadcaster.

A pacifist and socialist, who died aged only 51, she was regarded as a role model. One LSE student, who couldn’t afford her own flat, was taken in by Power at Mecklenburgh Square and said she exemplified “the possibilities open to women”.

She bought modern jewellery, beautiful dresses and listed her interests in Who’s Who as travelling and dancing.

If she were around today she’d probably be a media star.

Whereas HD and Sayers lived in the square as young women, Jane Ellen Harrison, a classics scholar and translator reputed to be “the cleverest woman in England”, arrived in 1926, aged 75, dying two years later.

She lived at 11 Mecklenburgh Street, just off the main square, where she and her partner Hope Mirrlees translated a collection of Russian folk tales about bears.

Harrison, one of the first women to establish a reputation as a professional scholar, was an inspiration to Virginia Woolf. And Woolf, who lived at 37 Mecklenburgh Square from August 1939 until October 1940, inspires this book. Its title is taken from her diary entry: “I like this London life… the street sauntering and square haunting.”

The Woolfs arrived to sandbags obstructing their home’s entrance and an air raid shelter being dug in the square’s garden.

Their tenure, which ended in wartime bombing, was marked by tension and unease. But during her year in Mecklenburgh Square Virginia completed a biography, wrote her novel Between the Acts and began sketching her memoirs.

At times it’s possible to get a bit bogged down in Wade’s five subjects’ social and professional networks. But her book is absorbing and insightful.

She makes some interesting points about class. Writing about Power’s domestic help, Francesca finds it “tempting to wonder whether she felt uncomfortable, as a socialist, that her intellectual freedom depended on the labour of other women”.

The class issue struck a chord with Virginia Woolf. Throughout 1940 she exchanged letters with Huddersfield millworker Agnes Smith, who, after reading Woolf’s essay Three Guineas, wrote to complain that Woolf seemed to “consider working women and the daughters of educated men as a race apart”.

The pair corresponded on “friendly terms”.

Francesca says the women in her book were “passionate about equality in all its forms – across gender, race, class, nationality – and in their different ways, all worked for a more egalitarian future”.

She thought they’d be delighted at women’s success in a huge variety of careers “though the questions we still ask around how to balance work and family life would be very familiar to them. “And certainly they would agree that there is a long way to go: as London house prices increase, and writers’ salaries go down, young women writers setting out today face as many challenges as these women did a century ago.”

Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. By Francesca Wade, Faber and Faber, £20.

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