Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade
I enjoyed this book so much!
First of all, let me clarify that I didn’t exactly read it – I listened to the audiobook (which I got from Libro.fm, a great source of downloadable audiobooks that supports indie bookstores – don’t buy from Audible, y’all, cause you-know-who owns them!). The reader had a lovely English accent, which made me feel like I was in London with her. And everything just sound better when it’s in an English accent, doesn’t it?
The author, Francesca Wade, who lives in London, has written for many stellar publications, but I had never read her work before, and she’s very good!
The premise of the book is that the five women on whom she focused all, at different points between the World Wars, lived in the same neighborhood, an area that is part of the famed Bloomsbury neighborhood called Mecklenburgh Square. She believes that living in this place influenced the work of these women.
What was notable about Mecklenburgh Square was that it was made up of homes that had been broken up and which had become boarding houses. And it was here, in a London still inhibited by Victorian strictures, that a woman could live how she wished, be it alone and trying to work to earn her own living, or with a man to whom she was not married. These type of living arrangements, shunned or at least looked down upon elsewhere, became more common and certainly doable and even acceptable in Mecklenburgh Square. I think the author makes a very good case for this place being influential in supporting these women’s ability to do the work they did, as well as offering them the opportunity to interact with like-minded people also living there.
Of the five women she writes about, I knew about only some of them. The most famous, and the one who really had the most tangential relationship to the place, was Virginia Woolf who, with her husband Leonard, had a place in the square during the last year of her life although, due to the oncoming war, spent much of her time in the country. The group also includes the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), whom I studied briefly in a poetry class in graduate school (thank you to the brilliant Ann Douglas), and the mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers, whose life I know about because another brilliant grad school prof of mine, Carolyn Heilbrun, refers to her in her fabulous book Writing a Woman’s Life (please read that one too!).
The other two writers featured a Jane Harrison, a scholar of classical literature and quite highly regarded in her time, and the economic historian Eileen Power. One of Power’s books was about medieval nuns, which was a great coincidence, since I just read Lauren Groff’s new novel Matrix, which is about medieval nuns!
To read (hear) this book, and to learn about how these women pushed against the boundaries of what was considered appropriate for women, how they pursued their scholarship and sought acclaim for their work, sought teaching positions that were denied to them, and yet persevered, was fascinating and inspiring, as well as a great way to learn some new history.
Love, love, love this book!