It has a lovely movement to it – a decadently pre-internet feel. It’s not just the period setting, it’s in the texture of Wade’s prose, which is careful and measured, with none of the forced perkiness I’ve come to associate with digital-era feminism. Wade, the co-editor of arts and literature magazine the White Review, is interested in ideas, in the great movements of history, and, above all, in the spirit of curiosity and adventure that binds these women together. These are writers whose happiness deepens the more satisfying their work. Reflecting on studying ancient Greek as a girl, Harrison wrote of the “delight of learning for learning’s sake a ‘dead’ language”.
The appetite for straightforward cradle-to-grave biographies has dwindled, among writers as well as readers. But the genre of biography is resilient, and new approaches to telling life stories have produced outstanding books. Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London between the Wars, is one of them. Francesca Wade’s first book is a bold account, not just of her subjects, but of the time and space they shared.
Wade is adept at evoking the gritty texture of the times, taking us seamlessly from the interior lives of her subjects into the world they inhabited and back again. Defiantly unmarried, Sayers relished the freedom she found among the transients of the square, and it was here that she embarked on the series of crime novels that would make her a celebrity, but not before an entanglement with one of H.D.’s would-be lovers, the shady John Cournos: such were the threads binding the square’s occupants together...
Wade distils half a century of social and literary history into these five women’s lives with a marvellously light touch. This is biography as fresh and engaging as you are likely to find.
Wade’s version is a powerful corrective to the cliché of Woolf as a gloomy woman of letters. She rousingly evokes her joy at “street sauntering and square haunting”.
Ultimately, even if Wade’s subjects do not all captivate in equal measure, she conveys her sense of exhilaration at the autonomy they each fight for on almost every page.
Woolf famously wrote that a woman must kill “the angel in the house” if she was to thrive creatively. All five did this with aplomb. Only two became mothers, and both had to make mind-blowing choices. In 1919, pregnant after a brief extramarital affair and believing that motherhood would murder the muse, HD enrolled her newborn in a residential nursery for two years. Scandalously unmarried, Sayers gave birth in secret then sent her baby to an Oxford cousin, writing him letters for the rest of her life. He only discovered that she was his mother when he applied for a passport.
Wade, the editor of the literary magazine The White Review, occasionally strains to wrangle this wide-ranging material back to its linking device, but she also draws connections on a grander scale, exploring shared experiences of community, crisis and creativity. The result is an impressive debut that puts her firmly on the literary map.
Square Haunting is an elegant, meticulously researched evocation of time and place. But connections, personal as well as geographical, are at times stretched. Sayers was a fan of Grand Guignol plays that “enticed devoted audiences, including, on at least one occasion, Virginia Woolf”. Harrison died in her Mecklenburgh Street home “months before Woolf delivered, at Harrison’s former college, the lecture that became A Room of One’s Own”, Woolf’s polemic on the essential prerequisites for a woman writer. Harrison “coincidentally . . . taught for a term” at the school that Power was to attend 23 years later.
I confess that this collection of life stories has a particular charm for me, because for many years I rented a room of my own in Bloomsbury, just off Queen Square, and would go there three days a week when the children were at school to write my novels. I liked the idea of “going to work” on the 24 bus, and leaving domesticity behind me. There is something about that neighbourhood of London, so vividly evoked by Wade, which encourages high thoughts and hard work. The statues and blue plaques, the British Museum, Russell Square, Gower Street, Brunswick Square, even Great Ormond Street – they were all a part of my literary map, all a part of my writing life. It is good to revisit them and their eloquent ghosts.
...through this conceit of time and place, Wade somehow funnels accounts of modernist poetry and prose, as well as Russian and German Jewish intellectual refugees, ancient Greek scholarship, medieval economics, the League of Nations, Chinese art and imperial decline, Grand Guignol, Freud, the October revolution, the BBC’s educational lectures, a history of the London School of Economics, the rise of nazism, and a sympathetic portrait of a teddy bear. In the process she both reframes half a century of supposedly familiar literary and intellectual history and illustrates everything Woolf meant by “a room of one’s own”... The women’s characters and situations leap off the page, helped by the kind of details – from interior decor to what they wore – that bring prose alive. Such observations are also political. After her house was blown up by a time bomb on 16 September 1940, Woolf looked out over the rubble and said: “I want my books & chairs & carpets & beds. How I worked to buy them – one by one.” The women are robust and witty (Sayers), vulnerable (HD, in hospital after a stillbirth, was chastised for taking up a bed a soldier might need) and intrepid (Power, stopped because she was female, disguised herself as a man to cross the Khyber Pass).
iggles aside, there is much to inspire. We hear little grievance or self-pity. The tone is rather one of furious, striding defiance. No more was an intelligent woman to be dismissed, in Sayers words, as a “literary freak”, “Bloomsbury frump” or “semi-demented spinster”. No more, Harrison wrote, would university women be second-class citizens wasting their energy and ingenuity in “cringing”. And no more would daughters waste away in drawing rooms, where a woman “can’t possibly settle down to think, because anyone may come in at any moment”. One of the most “ominous signs of the times”, Harrison mused, “is that woman is beginning to demand a study”.
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.
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.