Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom, and London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade, is a book that has been lingering on my TBR since it came out. It’s a look at the lives of five women who successfully developed professional careers at a time when that was still very difficult for women, all of whom lived in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury. “Between the wars” is a bit of a misnomer, since the book starts slightly before WWI and ends in 1940. Wade doesn’t try to cover the whole of each woman’s life, but instead takes the time in Mecklenburgh Square as her primary topic, providing just enough background to give context. The five women in question are Hilda Doolittle (HD), DL Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf – only two or three of whom I was aware of beforehand. Before picking this up, I would have said that only DL Sayers was interesting to me on her own terms. Irrespective of that, I enjoyed this a great deal.
Whenever someone asks me where I’d go if I had a time machine, one of my answers is always that I would like to go and spend time with early female students of the University of London, and later at the first women’s colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. (Assuming, of course, that I could take a few vials of penicillin and streptomycin with me – an important requirement for any sort of time travel). They were already women with tremendous advantages, of course – working-class men and women didn’t get to university in any great number until the social changes brought about by the fifties and sixties, and even now Oxbridge is hardly overwhelmed with students from council estates. In many ways, though, those women were tough as nails, and they were very committed to their scholarly pursuits. I felt like this book was the closest I am likely to come to actually getting to eavesdrop on those conversations and walk among those women, and so I enjoyed it tremendously.
In part, this is because I had the best possible experience reading the introduction and the start of H.D.’s section: I read them on my way up to/through London for my Glasgow trip back in February, then got off the tube near Euston and wandered the very streets of Bloomsbury with which Square Haunting concerns itself, looking at the blue plaques with great interest. Even better, seated one table over at the restaurant where I ate dinner were two very thin women dressed in all black, with identical frizzy grey haircuts and thick round glasses. They were discussing the historicity of a recent biography of Henry VIII’s last days (also swapping Doctor Who theories with equal seriousness). In other words, they had clearly just knocked off work at Birkbeck for the week. I tried to make sure my Clever and Feminist reading material and TARDIS fanart t-shirt were both visible to them, but they didn’t come over and ask to be my friends or anything. Still, I felt almost as though one of these women could walk through the door at any minute and start a conversation with me. This is absolutely the only version of living in London that I feel I could enjoy. Of course, it probably never existed, and certainly doesn’t now. I would be unable to buy or rent a flat in Bloomsbury because I am not descended from an oligarch. Even so, though.
My favourite section is the one on Dorothy L Sayers. Partly, I am sure, that’s because Sayers is one of my favourite writers already. More than that, though, Sayers careened through her life with joyful exuberance and determination. She faced many of the same difficulties that the other women did, compounded by financial hardship (because she probably had the most “normal” background of all these women) – yet Sayers’ took the same vigorous approach to handling trouble as she did to pretty much everything else. This makes her just a hugely enjoyable person to read about. I recognise the criticisms made of her – the classism and snobbery in the early Wimsey novels, especially – and she and I certainly don’t agree about everything. Still, I’ve long been interested in her life and work. Sayers probably epitomises the themes of this book best – the striving for independence, the attempt to balance her desire for love and marriage with her hopes for a career – probably because these were subjects directly addressed in her own fiction via the character of Harriet Vane. Because Sayers’ Gaudy Night is one of my forever-favourite novels, I’ve thought a lot about Sayers’ treatment of equality both within academia and within marriage, and so there were no new insights as such – but I enjoyed reading Wade’s analysis of the work in the context of Sayers’ years in Mecklenburgh Square (where Harriet also lived) all the same.
The section on Eileen Power was also excellent. I was fascinated by her work on what we would now call decolonising the curriculum, which she began in the early years of the 20th century. As an historian, she found the narrow focus of history teaching in schools troubling, and began the “BBC Schools” radio programme with her sister Rhoda to present a more expansive, accurate, and inclusive view. The Great Man theory of history, which was so prominent in the 19th century, was criticised both then and now for being unscientific and inaccurate. Power, who was a committed socialist, also felt it contributed to militarism, nationalism, and exclusion of women and the working class. All these critiques are generally accepted these days (to the point where I studied them at school), but were unorthodox at the time. Her decidedly anti-imperial views meant that she was invested in people having access to their own local history, rather than being taught about British military victories etc, and she worked hard on this issue. I found the account of her career completely absorbing. Over the course of decades, she tried to reform academia from within to make it more welcoming – not just to women, but to working class people and those from other countries. Truly someone who put her money where her mouth was.
That brings me, uneasily, to the section on Virginia Woolf, who does not really seem to belong in this book. Wade does tie A Room of One’s Own nicely into the final chapter, but otherwise Woolf’s inclusion jars. All the other women in this book lived in Mecklenburgh Square during seasons where they were productive, optimistic, and hopeful about their professional lives (at least to start with). Woolf, on the other hand, lived in the square towards the end of her life, at the outbreak of WWII, at a time when she was cynical and disconnected. She and Leonard had a house in the country and another in London, so they also didn’t really live in Mecklenburgh Square in quite the same way as the other women here – Woolf’s life was not shaped by it. The barriers faced by Woolf during this period of her life were not really to do with trying to forge a professional career as a women – instead, they were related to writers’ block and depression. That’s a perfectly reasonable theme for a biography, of course, but it doesn’t much relate to the rest of the book. I also felt that Wade wanted me to overlook the absolutely vile things Woolf said about the working class. She includes quotes from Woolf’s diaries that indicate her utter distaste for commoners and their “cheap minds”, but sets them in the context of her publically performed socialism. However, she wasn’t successful in convincing me that Woolf was doing her best – only that she was a hypocrite, especially in the context of the section on Eileen Power, which immediately precedes it.
Despite the oddness of the Woolf section, though, I’m very glad I read this. Professional British women in the 21st century – especially female academics – owe something of a debt to women in this era, who confronted and disproved the idea that we are wholescale unsuited to academic or professional work. To sum it up, I want to include a quote from the conclusion – a whole paragraph, really, but I think it encapsulates what I liked so much about this book.
On a chilly afternoon in December, I leave the British Museum and wander through Bloomsbury to Mecklenburgh Square. I’ve been in the museum’s basement examining its collection of admission records, delighted to find an archive in which all my subjects are represented. There, laid out on my desk in their plastic folders, are their applications for admittance to the Reading Room, their first announcements of themselves as scholars. There’s the neat square handwriting of Eileen Power, who in a gesture of resolve has crossed out ‘General Study’ and written ‘Historical Research’ under the heading of ‘Purpose’; there’s Hilda Doolittle, whose 1911 application encloses ‘recommendation from personal friend, Mr Ezra Pound’. There’s Virginia Woolf, writing from Gordon Square the year after she arrived in Bloomsbury, and Dorothy L Sayers, who mentions that she hopes, in her new home, to find time to begin a thesis for the Degree of D.Litt (…) Only Jane Harrison’s does not survive, but a supporting note in her hand, on paper headed with the 11 Mecklenburgh Street address, accompanies the application of Hope Mirrlees, made in 1927. (…)
Another door opens; another woman enters the old library, and looks up at the high ceiling, hoping that one day soon young women will see it as rightfully theirs.
Thanks, female scholars of the 20s and 30s. I’m extremely grateful.