Mecklenburgh Square, on the radical fringes of Bloomsbury in London, is the focus of this debut work of non-fiction. During the interwar years it was home to five exceptional women: modernist poet H D, detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. In this accomplished group biography Wade beautifully evokes the emotional texture of their lives as she relates how each of these women sought a space where they could live, love and work independently.
Wade’s research is impressive, but you have to navigate quite a lot of padding, potted histories and remorseless, sometimes extraneous detail to keep track of the wider themes; most of the time, we lose sight of Mecklenburgh Square altogether. We feel her earnest respect for her women, yet on the page they do not quite live. Wade tends to view them through the lens of our own age, when the word ‘vulnerability’ is weighted rather differently than it was in the 1920s. The stories she tells are of rebellion, for example, but her conventional enemy is not always so clear cut: she tells us that the women were rebelling against ‘societal norms’, as indeed many were, but their families seemed on the whole very supportive. HD’s parents sent her £200 a year and came often to stay in London, and Sayers was dependent on hers for emotional and financial support. Wade is very reverent and solemn about all her subjects but with HD in particular, one feels she has missed the joke. However innovative her poetic voice, HD, revealed by the letters quoted in Wade’s own account, was also absurdly self-absorbed and self-dramatising. It doesn’t always detract from someone’s creative achievements that they are at times puzzlingly contradictory or even downright ridiculous: it just makes them more fully human.