I like this London in early summer – the street sauntering & square haunting. – Virginia Woolf, Diary 20th April 1925
Sadly, street sauntering and square haunting are not pleasures we can allow ourselves in this current state of social distancing and self-isolation, but this quote from Virginia Woolf makes me look forward to happier days to come, when I can enjoy the freedom I took so very much for granted before. One of the destinations I’m looking forward to exploring as soon as I’m able is Mecklenburgh Square, which Francesca Wade writes about so interestingly in her group biography, Square Haunting. I met with Francesca on a rainy, cold afternoon in Bloomsbury at the very start of March to interview her for Tea & Tattle Podcast (scroll down to listen to our chat) and had intended to go to Mecklenburgh Square first, but the dreary weather put me off. I wish I’d gone anyway!
Bloomsbury offers its own kind of haunting for me, as when I walk its streets I feel as if I could turn a corner and run into the ghost of my younger self, when I’d just arrived in London and was at university around the corner from Russell Square, and, a little later, when I spent several months working at Persephone Books. I remember the thrill I experienced when I walked along a quiet street (Gt James Street) a short distance from Persephone and saw a blue plaque stating that Dorothy L. Sayers had lived in the building at 23 & 24. I snapped photos of the commemorative bust of Virginia Woolf in Tavistock Square, my mind whirring at the thought that here I was, actually in Bloomsbury, walking the same streets that Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and so many other members of the Bloomsbury Group padded along themselves.
I must have walked by Mecklenburgh Square at some point in my student days, but I wouldn’t have remarked it particularly, partly because, as Francesca Wade points out in our chat together, blue plaques are disappointingly lacking in this square, and only one of the women Wade writes about in Square Haunting is commemorated: the poet Hilda Doolittle (H. D.), who is remembered by a blue plaque at number 44 Mecklenburgh Square.
It was this plaque, though, that proved to be the early beginnings of Square Haunting. Having studied H.D. at university, Wade began researching more about Doolittle’s life in Mecklenburgh Square and discovered that four other brilliant literary women had lived in the square during the inter-war years. Square Haunting examines the lives of all of these women: H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Elieen Power and Virginia Woolf. Being a tremendous fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery books, Dorothy L. Sayers, along with Virginia Woolf, were already well-known to me, but I was intrigued to find out more about the other women.
H.D. was a modernist poet who took inspiration from Greek mythology and nature; Jane Ellen Harrison carved out a remarkable career as a classics don at Cambridge, before giving up her life in academia and reinventing herself in her later years; Eileen Power was a historian, broadcaster and pacifist, and she became the Chair of Economic History at the London School of Economics in 1931. In many ways, I found Power the most likeable and inspiring of all the women: I loved the details Wade gave about her personality; for instance, Power adored beautiful clothes and enjoyed subverting men’s expectations of women through her attractive figure and razor-sharp intellect.
Square Haunting has clearly been meticulously researched, and Wade has a brilliant knack for sharing small details that flesh out the personalities she describes so perfectly. I loved learning that Dorothy L. Sayers enjoyed a friendly chat with her landlady (whom H.D. had detested), and that Jane Harrison had a deep love for bears and kept a bespectacled teddy bear on her mantelpiece. The horror of war struck more deeply when I read that Leonard and Virginia Woolf, knowing their names were on a blacklist drawn up by the Gestapo, decided ‘after a sensible, rather matter-of-fact talk’ that, in the event of an invasion, they would gas themselves at home rather than risk capture.
Intriguing as these small cameos of life are, it is also the broader lens of Square Haunting that makes the book such a memorable read. Wade shows how these women of Mecklenburgh Square were linked by much more than their address: they all shared a desire for intellectual freedom and the ability to live, love and work on their own terms. Each woman broke barriers and transcended gender expectations, forging paths that many more women would follow, and Wade argues that the unique environment of Bloomsbury enabled these women to find ‘a room of her own,’ and thus pursue a life that held meaning, interest and purpose for each.
Reading Square Haunting, then, made me consider not only the obstacles women faced in pursuing creative and intellectual freedom in the past, but also the challenge we still face today. Wade’s biography encouraged me to reflect on my own intentions, and the resolution of women such as Eileen Power not to compromise their ambitions, and only to marry if they found true equality in a relationship, is a stance that I believe is just as difficult – but still as vital – to take today. Finally, as is discussed at the end of our interview, Wade shows just how prescient the women she studied were, in their shared belief in equality and the importance of internationalism and tolerance.
Listen to my interview with Francesca Wade by clicking the link here, or playing below: