Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade, Faber & Faber, 422 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0571330652
Think of Bloomsbury and what might spring to mind is its “orderly profligacy and passionate coldness”. (The phrase is Elizabeth Hardwick’s, in one of her early essay/reviews for The New York Review of Books.) But there was always more to Bloomsbury than this suggests. First came the actual geographical locality – the streets and squares and architecture of a part of central London – and then the associations imposed on top of it: literary, scholarly, urbane or bohemian. Bloomsbury as an idea continues to reverberate, in ways both gossipy and profound. Bedazzling sexual intrigues and a spot of intellectual hauteur are only a part of it. And however many words have been expended on Bloomsbury (and there have been a lot), there is always more to be said. Francesca Wade’s superbly engaging Square Haunting takes up the theme, but at the same time narrows and intensifies its focus. Wade homes in on a single square, Mecklenburgh Square, which is not at the heart of the potent locality but rather on its periphery. Nevertheless, it – or some of those who lived in it – had considerable input into the defining spirit of Bloomsbury. And among Mecklenburgh Square’s most significant residents were the five women who form the subject of Wade’s study.
None of them spent the greater part of her life in the square, or accorded it a primary role in her territorial affections. But for each of them the place is bound up with a sense of freedom and independence, a breaking away from patriarchal restrictions. They came to it at various times, and lived there in varying conditions of comfort and insufficiency, between the wars. In highlighting aspects of their lives, Francesca Wade displays a feminist purpose – well of course she does. You cannot praise famous women of the mid-twentieth century without also praising the drive and determination, in the face of tremendous odds, that got them to where they were.
In every case, it’s a story of intelligence asserted, obstacles overcome, conventions disregarded and experience embraced to the full. The first of Wade’s sterling quintet is Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), imagist poet and protégée of Ezra Pound. H.D. (1886-1961) had fled from Philadelphia to London in 1911, propelled by a strong desire to evade the shackles of conventional American academic life. (Her father was a professor of astronomy, and she herself had spent some time at Bryn Mawr College before dropping out and announcing her intention to become a writer by splashing ink all over her clothes.) A Russian-American-Jewish friend, John Cournos – who would have liked to marry her – introduced her to Mecklenburgh Square, where she rented a first-floor flat at No 44. A degree of literary success and some emotional entanglements ensue. Instead of Cournos, H.D. marries fellow poet and novelist Richard Aldington, who admires her intelligence but doesn’t rate her sexual attractiveness. He quickly seduces Cournos’s girlfriend Arabella and has sex with her in an attic at Mecklenburgh Square while H.D. sits downstairs wrapped in misery (and a blanket). Soon, however, H.D. is pregnant by someone else, who scarpers when he hears the news and is never heard from again. A daughter, Perdita, is the result.
H.D.’s “unhappy circumstances” found their way, eventually, into a number of novels with lush titles, Bid Me to Live (1960), Paint It Today (not published until 1992), and other works. Literary women, no less than men, have at their fingertips an obvious means of retaliation for wrongs or annoyances inflicted and slights endured; and with Bloomsbury in particular, a lot of stored-up grievances get an outlet in various romans-à-clef. Sometimes it seems they are all at it, Bloomsbury’s intelligentsia, portraying their lovers, friends and acquaintances with insight or invective, as the mood of the moment takes them. Richard Aldington’s First World War novel Death of a Hero (1929), for example, is extremely bitter and sarcastic about women in general, who never had an inkling of what soldiers went through in the trenches; he directs particular venom towards his “hero’s” wife and mistress, who, he claims, were adept at “veiling the ancient, predatory and possessive instincts of the sex under a skillful smoke-barrage of Freudian and Havelock Ellis theories”. So much, you might think, for Bloomsbury’s avant-garde feminism and “marriage-of-equals” ideology.
John Cournos was another who got his own back on several uncompliant women in his fiction. Among them are H.D. and the second of Francesca Wade’s subjects, Somerville graduate and future detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers. Sayers, by a coincidence, came to live at 44 Mecklenburgh Square in 1920, taking over a room previously occupied by H.D. (whom she didn’t know). By a further coincidence, she began an unsatisfactory love affair with John Cournos, whom she irritated by her refusal to sleep with him. Her objection was not exactly on moral or prudish grounds, but based on his insistence on using contraception. She felt this cast her in a peripheral role in his life, and she wasn’t mistaken. The relationship did not thrive. A novel by Cournos duly appeared in which he criticises Sayers’s ankles and her personality. The Devil is an English Gentleman was published in 1932 – but Sayers had got her blow in first by casting Cournos as the unpleasant murder victim Philip Boyes in her detective novel of 1930, Strong Poison. This novel saw the first appearance of Sayers’s alter ego Harriet Vane, who stands accused of the crime but is saved from the gallows by Lord Peter Wimsey (Sayers’s fantasy soul-mate). Boyes, according to a character in the book, “had made use of [Harriet] and nagged her to death for a year and insulted her at the end”. So there.
Sayers’s aversion to contraception resulted in the birth of a son, Anthony, whom she kept under wraps for the rest of her life. Her supportive, elderly parents never knew they had a grandchild. Anthony’s father was a married motor mechanic of limited intellectual capacity who soon disappeared from Sayers’s life. Anthony was boarded out with his mother’s cousin and friend Ivy Simpson, and mother and son never really took to one another. It is sometimes difficult to understand Sayers’s actions and choices – the latter including her brief marriage to a hard-drinking Fleet Street journalist named Oswald Atherton Fleming (OAF). The marriage doesn’t last. However, it seems clear that an exceptionally strong will and robust self-confidence are among Sayers’s traits; and by this stage (the mid-1930s) she has achieved all the fame and fortune she had craved from the word go. It’s a far cry from her youthful Mecklenburgh Square days, when she suffered from bruised emotions and an inadequate income ‑ not that these deficiencies stopped her from relishing her invigorating “Bloomsbury independence” .
Independence is the key, and not only youthful independence. Jane Harrison was seventy-six when she settled in Mecklenburgh Street, off the Square, with her companion Hope Mirlees. The year was 1926, and Harrison was approaching the end of her life. Her remarkable career had entailed cocking a snook, all along, at supposed gender disabilities. As an early classics student at Newnham College, Cambridge (1874), as a public intellectual, pioneering scholar of Greek goddess cults, acclaimed author and so on, Jane Harrison’s life story exemplifies women’s potential for academic advancement – as well as underscoring a few of the old-fashioned attitudes they were up against. After years of teaching and lecturing in London and Oxford, she was eventually invited to return to Newnham on a three-year fellowship. Bolstered by a regular salary and the crucial “room of her own” specified by Virginia Woolf, she got down to writing the “groundbreaking studies” on which her reputation rests. But the male establishment at the time took exception to Harrison’s scholarship and her literary style. Among the most dismissive and vociferous of her critics was the then provost of King’s, the great ghost-story writer MR James (we might have inferred his attitude from the almost total absence of women from his fiction). Undaunted, Harrison stuck to her guns and took comfort from the fact that she had set a feminist cat among a lot of hidebound old masculine pigeons.
An enthusiasm for all things Russian, and especially Russian bears, came to dominate the second half of Jane Harrison’s life, and it culminated in the very small, very charming Book of the Bear, published by the Nonesuch Press in 1926. This is a collection of folk tales translated from the Russian by Harrison and Hope Mirlees, and it includes four bear stories by their friend Alexei Remizov. Here, the ubiquitous Cournos comes into the picture again, this time as an earlier translator and promoter of the Russian author. Francesca Wade has an eye for interconnected themes and ideas, paths crossing and crisscrossing. Ironies and fortuities weave in and out of her narrative like honeysuckle in a garland. Her fourth subject, Eileen Power, for example, attended a school in Oxford at which Jane Harrison had taught; she conducted a brief correspondence with Dorothy L Sayers, whom she’d met at a party; she knew and admired Leonard and Virginia Woolf, both as exemplars and as amusing dinner companions. And so on.
Eileen Power lived at 20 Mecklenburgh Square between 1922 and her death in 1940 when she was just fifty-one, just two years into an exceptionally happy marriage and at the height of her powers as a mediaeval historian, broadcaster and lecturer at the London School of Economics. Wade places her among the brilliant and indomitable female academics and authors of the mid-twentieth century, whose “bold and fascinating lives”, taken as a blueprint, opened up all kinds of possibilities for their successors. Power, as a staunch upholder of “gender equality … class freedom and world peace”, did not set her aspirations low. Like the other intrepid women of Square Haunting, within their different disciplines, Power focused her attention on the lives of those “written out” of the official histories: that is women, labourers, all the ordinary people to whom she wished to restore a measure of personal autonomy. (Her book of 1924, Mediaeval People, is less concerned with manor house wars and diplomacy than with “the kitchens of history”.) A similar impulse of reclamation determines the drift of Virginia Woolf’s enormously influential study A Room of One’s Own (1929) and the historical pageant at the centre of her marvellous last novel, Between the Acts (1941), deliberately puts the emphasis on “peace and community” rather than the usual much-vaunted story-of-England in its “authority and power”.
From the title on, Virginia Woolf is a strong presence in Wade’s book. Woolf’s delight in “street sauntering and square haunting”, as she put it in her diary in 1925, is reflected in the words of others exhilarated by the scope and intensity of London life. (“London is an amazing place,” TS Eliot wrote to his mother in 1917; while for H.D. the city was bound up with “freedom of mind and spirit”.) Woolf came to Mecklenburgh Square, however, at an inauspicious moment in British history. “How to go on, through war? thats the question,” she wrote in her diary ten days after moving into No 37. (She had previously lived in Gordon and Tavistock Squares, and since 1919 she and Leonard had had their principal home at Rodmell in Sussex.) Acutely aware of the “eeriness and disorientation” of living in a city under siege, Woolf observed the destruction around her in a heightened state of tension and dismay. Her old haunts were newly and uncannily devastated, taking on an aspect like Elizabeth Bowen’s transfigured London, her “Mysterious Kor”. As the blitz on London continued, Jane Harrison’s house nearby was reduced to a pile of bricks; then No 37 had all its windows blown out and was rendered uninhabitable. The date was September 1940, just over a year since the arrival of the Woolfs. They salvaged what they could of their damaged possessions and said goodbye to the Square. Within six months Virginia Woolf herself was dead, drowned in the river Ouse. Wade rightly cautions us against allowing the suicide to colour our view of Woolf’s entire life. What’s important in the end is her “strength, humour, imagination and resilience” – qualities she shares with the other women of Square Haunting (well, perhaps leaving aside H.D., who seems to have been slightly deficient in the areas of humour and an ironic approach to things). All of them, in their different ways, absorbed the complex undercurrents of the Bloomsbury style and outlook, while contributing to its essence their own unbeatable gifts. They are part of the legacy of Bloomsbury, products of a particular time and place – and time and place are important, as are contemporary mores. Even if we have to qualify “egalitarian” and “independence”, say, by noting the women’s reliance on servants to perform household chores (even Dorothy L Sayers, in her days of impecuniousness, employed “a very nice woman” to do the cleaning and washing up), we should remember that social change comes slowly, that in this instance it took an entire world war to speed it up. What is indisputable is that these particular, early-to-mid-twentieth-century women were all advanced thinkers, outstanding artists and opponents of outworn conventions – and Square Haunting, rich in atmosphere, assured and insightful as it is, applauds their lives and achievements and goes about it with eloquence and flair.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.