Another of the Emma and Liz Reads books, following on from Sabeena Akhtar’s “Cut from the Same Cloth” (if you want to find them all, click on the link there or click on the category in the category cloud), which has taken us since July to read, half a main chapter at a time on Thursday nights. Ali kindly passed me this hardback, which I think she had as a review copy: it’s quite a hefty tome, though I think Emma had the paperback version as she acquired it more recently.

I know a few of the bloggers I follow have read this already and I’m a bit late to the party: do share your reviews in the comments if you’d like to!

Francesca Wade – “Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars”

(13 June 2020, from Ali)

For all of them, in different ways, their time in the square was formative. They all agreed that the structures which had long kept women subordinate were illusory and mutable: in their writing and their lifestyles they wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women. In Mecklenburgh Square, each dedicated herself to establishing a way of life that would let her fulfil her potential, to finding relationships that would support her work and a domestic set-up that would enable it. But it was not always easy. Their lives in the square demonstrate the challenges, personal and professional, that met – and continue to meet – women who want to make their voices heard. (p. 8)

The modernist poet H.D. the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, the historian and pacifist Eileen Power and the writer Virginia Woolf all lived at one point in their lives in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, some of them in the same building or even flat, at different times. Some of them interacted with each other; several of them interacted with the same other people, and this superb group biography looks at their similarities and differences, preserving and amplifying the general theme of their exploration of freedom and also the nature of marriage and relationships.

The level of scholarship and research that went into this book was amazing. Wade both differentiates the women and draws conclusions about their links while keeping it readable and moving onwards briskly. We’d both heard of H.D., Sayers and of course Woolf, but really enjoyed the other chapters, too, particularly the one on Eileen Power, who we both liked tremendously.

The first chapter, “In the Square”, sets the scene and looks at how biography is written and the state of women between the wars. Then we have a longish chapter per woman, looking at their individual lives before and during their time in the square, their domestic arrangements, work and relationships, sharing original sources and photographs of the women. After that, a chapter draws their lives to a close after their lives in the square, again showing the parallels between them, and notes the changes to the architecture itself, with the side they lived on being subsumed into an educational establishment but a lovely little detail at the end which made us both well up slightly.

Each chapter shows very nicely the friendships that sustain the five women, as well as their work and relationships. Understanding and kind people rescue or support them, sing their praises and have fun at dinner parties. Their reactions to living there are shown as mirroring their lives: while Virginia Woolf felt oppressed by running two households in London and the countryside,

To H.D., more insecure and anxious by nature, the boarding house had signified the dissolution of all domestic structures, mirroring the collapse of her marriage, to Sayers, happily unmarried, it meant independence. (p. 106)

(However, Wade does note that everyone employed some kind of “nice woman” to “do” for them).

Wade is particularly good at finding out when and how the women overlapped, met or corresponded with one another; she says in a note she could have written about several more but found connections between these and enough materials to make it work, although some of them suppressed their own notes and archives or had them suppressed (Eileen Powers’ sister burned her personal papers, for example).

A wonderful, readable book about five memorable and admirable women; none of them given more room or time than any others, even though a couple are more well-known. It’s definitely inspired us to read Sayer’s “Gaudy Night” (though not as a readalong as we’ll forget what happens in the weeks in between) and made us think but wasn’t too hard or impenetrable, so an ideal Read Together book.

Emma and I both thoroughly enjoyed this book, even if we got a little lost in the screeds of names at times (but then some returned in several chapters). We’re going to go on a pilgrimage to Mecklenburgh Square next time I’m in London.