If you live in London, squares are best. They have a plot. They tilt the natives away from secrecy and hoarding – from their hidden back gardens – towards a shared space. One end isn’t grander than the other; indeed, unless you are a postwoman, it won’t be clear where they start and finish. Ideal for snoopers, snipers, novelists, cartoonists and daydreamers, squares offer the chance of peering out in several directions without someone across from you peering back. They mix urbanity and slinky wildness: Woolfs without, foxes within.
Francesca Wade has made a lofty, secluded square into a terrific subject for her first book. She wandered into Mecklenburgh Square, on the edge of Bloomsbury, by chance. She responded to it fervently, researched it vigorously – and identified it as a magnet for adventurous women. Her starting point is modest: she writes about the Mecklenburgh years of five 20th-century women, not all of them long-term residents. Her reach is wide: Imagist poetry, the rise of Russian studies, detective fiction, the League of Nations. Her aim is high: she argues that taken together these lives suggest a new way of looking at the mid-20th century.
Square Haunting goes on the blink every now and then, losing its focus and unravelling into a series of lively, but separate, crammed essays. Yet at the centre is a real discovery, which begins with an intuition of the kind more usually associated with fiction. It is possible to walk around that square hundreds of times, as I have, knowing that Virginia Woolf was here, that Dorothy Sayers lived close by, noting the blue plaque to Hilda Doolittle, without detecting a feminist circuit. Unless you are Wade, whose investigations led her to an abundance of interesting residents. She considered writing about Helena Normanton, the first woman to practise as a barrister in England and the first married woman to have a passport in her maiden name. Lorna Garman nearly supplemented the many romances in the book: when her lover Laurie Lee went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, she sent him pound notes soaked in Chanel No. 5. Nancy Morris, who wore the cast-off suits of the Soho restaurateur Marcel Boulestin, would have brought a dash of something altogether different. ‘She is absolutely uncultured,’ her lover Alix Strachey explained. In the end, alongside HD, Sayers and Woolf, Wade decided to concentrate on the classicist Jane Harrison and the historian Eileen Power.
Woolf is the most obvious motor for Square Haunting. The title tips its hat to ‘Street Haunting’, her essay about a London meander. Its premise – the difficulty and importance for women of securing what was then a place, and is now called ‘space’ – is drawn from A Room of One’s Own. The Woolf chapter is the least arresting, however, and not only because the material is the most familiar. She did not fully engage with the square, indeed she scarcely seems to have known where it was: ‘One side is chimneys on a hill, I suppose Islington.’ Three months after she moved in she reported ‘a chamber pot in the sitting room and a bed in the dining room’. Her spell there was brief – from August 1939 to October 1940 – and fractured by war. ‘Everybody is feeling the same thing,’ she said of beleaguered Londoners, ‘therefore no one is feeling anything in particular.’ (Speak for yourself, Virginia.) Crucially, she was more often in Sussex than in Mecklenburgh Square, describing her time away from the city with ‘treasonable’ pleasure.
Woolf had been thinking about fresh ways of writing biography, ways that didn’t involve the awed and dogged chronicling of great (that’s to say, manly) feats; she was working on Between the Acts, in which the sense of the present is ensnared by the past and which has at its centre a community performance. She was planning her own ‘Common History’ book. These concerns link her to Jane Harrison’s work on Greek drama and community ritual, to HD’s interest in choruses and women’s communities – and to Wade’s own project. The link to Mecklenburgh Square is less secure: it is only a spectral presence. Woolf’s thinking was done more often on downland than paving stone. Wade must have been tempted to beef up the London part of her life with some of her city evocations, but I’m glad she didn’t succumb. The street-haunting essay is fascinating about the glide of the writer’s eye; less so about anything on which the eye rests. At her worst Woolf is a whimsical flâneuse, bestowing her curiosity without seeming to be interested – ‘in what crevices and crannies, one might ask, did they lodge, this maimed company of the halt and the blind?’ – and throwing out airy fabrications: ‘the peevish yet apologetic expression usual on the faces of the deformed’. She was better at seeing into things than looking at them.
It is the far-sighted Jane Harrison who does what might be considered the novelist’s job of putting bricks and mortar around the idea of a room of one’s own. She points out that anyone can go into the drawing room, where the wife is in charge, while the man’s study – the place where he ‘thinks, and learns, and knows’ – is reserved for him alone. In the study there are ‘rarely two chairs’. Harrison is glimpsed at the beginning of A Room of One’s Own, ‘formidable yet humble with her great forehead and her shabby dress’. As a young woman she gave throbbing lectures in spangled satin and Egyptian beads, and was painted by Augustus John in silks that don’t look too dusty. David Piper called it ‘the only existing humane portrait of a Lady Don’ and Harrison was pleased, thinking she looked ‘like a distinguished prize-fighter who has had a vision and collapsed under it’. Wade’s account of her life is in tune with the pugilism: a persuasive depiction of skirmish, idealism and struggle. Harrison’s father had resisted the idea of education for women and her stepmother insisted on trying to make her more feminine: she sewed a fringe on her mackintosh. Yet in 1874 she got a scholarship to Cambridge to study Classics (three years earlier Newnham had made accommodation available to women attending its new ‘Lectures for Ladies’). Her insistence on an alternative history – punching against the Olympian pantheon, revealing evidence for matriarchal husband-free goddesses – is central to Square Haunting and a direct influence on Woolf and HD. Central, too, are the obstacles she encountered (along with some coterie idolatry): in 1888 London academics pronounced it ‘undesirable’ that ‘any teaching in University College should be conducted by a woman’. She left Cambridge saying that ‘much of our ingenuity & energy goes in cringing’.
Something else makes Harrison all-pervasive. Fascinated by Henri Bergson’s idea of time as a series of changes melting into one another and finding this represented in the imperfective aspect of the Russian language, with its implication of collective memory, she evolved a theory, simply expressed, of merging boundaries between past and present, between one person and another: ‘Each of us is a snowball growing bigger every moment, and in which all our past, and also the past out of which we sprang, all the generations behind us, is rolled up, involved.’ Square Haunting reverberates with this notion. The connections Wade finds between her subjects’ work and lives are in the main echoes and overlaps – a kind of confluence – rather than direct inheritance, debts or tussles for supremacy.
Harrison knew 16 languages (11 living and five dead), and in a nifty footnote Wade comments that she ‘began teaching Russian almost as soon as she began learning it’. Feats of translation marked her seventies, which she spent in Mecklenburgh Square with her companion Hope Mirrlees, a former student 36 years her junior, whose book-length poem Paris was published by the Hogarth Press (Woolf did the typesetting). Here the couple developed another language, a private code that drew on Harrison’s fascination with bears – her college study had been packed with models and images of them. Not for the last time bears became part of the idiom of same-sex love, as the two women developed a game pivoting on one particular toy bear, called the Old One. It is generous of Wade not to ridicule this. Like most romantic rituals, it is hard to read about without wincing: ‘The OO commands me to send a wave of his paw’ and so on. Mirrlees has been blamed for encouraging Harrison to destroy her papers. Wade doesn’t agonise too much over the reasons for this. It is easy to assume that, along with the regretted scholastic exchanges, passionate love letters went up in smoke. It may simply have been more about those bears.
This isn’t the only bonfire to have made Wade’s task more difficult. When the economic historian Eileen Power died in 1940, her sisters burned most of her personal papers. It is impossible to know whether this was a calculated act of appropriation or a convulsive reaction to the idea of a companion passing into the third person. Wade makes up for the loss in her marshalling of Power’s achievements. This is the book’s most striking recuperation. Power breezes in as part of a less familiar, less Woolf-driven Bloomsbury: as Wade puts it, ‘she preferred her gatherings to centre on action, not aesthetics’; was more interested in political buffeting than in artistic or emotional bruising. A vocal supporter of the League of Nations, a pacifist and champion of what are quaintly referred to here as ‘the lower classes’, she produced a surprise bestseller in Medieval People, one of the earliest Pelicans. She was a friend of R.H. Tawney, a colleague at the LSE, who lived in several houses in the square and has a plaque commemorating his residence (Power doesn’t). She loved jazz, but resigned from the Gargoyle Club when she wasn’t allowed in with Paul Robeson. She crossed the Khyber Pass, then closed to women, disguised as a man; became ‘wildly socialistic and revolutionary’ in Paris; campaigned with H.G. Wells against the teaching of patriotic history. One of her students at the LSE testified: ‘At her house in 20 Mecklenburgh Square, I began to make out – like a skyline breaking through a lifting fog – the shape of another world.’
She also brought the fabric of other worlds into the square. She was keen on embroidered Chinese gowns and Paris frocks: ‘I certainly feel there is something radically wrong with my clothes from an academic point of view.’ Shuddering away from the ‘cabbage wallpaper and horsehair sofas’ of her Victorian relatives, she decorated her flat with ornaments collected on her trips abroad and threw excellent parties. A trim invitation, decorated with drawings of wine pitchers swinging from hooks, would demand: ‘Dancing in the kitchen: morning dress’.
Power is the most physically and mentally robust of these women. Dorothy Sayers is the splashiest. She wore knickers with parrots on them, rode a motorbike and exploded in essays such as ‘Are Women Human?’ Like Agatha Christie, she was an author of mysteries who guarded a secret of her own. Christie’s secret was an unexplained disappearance; Sayers’s was a concealed appearance. A few years after her time in Mecklenburgh Square, she gave birth to a son. When the father revealed himself to be married, she turned the child over to the care of a cousin and for the rest of her life never spoke of him to her parents or friends. Wade isn’t the first to tell this story but she uses it to pointed, non-judgmental effect, showing the conflict, and the perceived necessity for concealment, which hung over both Sayers and the ‘other woman’ in the story, the man’s wife, who helped to keep the secret.
Sayers is Wade’s best example of product placement. She started to write fiction in Mecklenburgh Square and made it the home of her heroine in Gaudy Night. On the first page, Harriet Vane looks out at the square’s tulips and tennis players, while thinking of Oxford. She does so, Wade points out, from a room which her suitor, Peter Wimsey, never enters: this is the domain of an independent woman. The plot shows a variety of women being thwarted by family or communal life: wife, don, novelist, servant. The names are a tease. Although a lord, Wimsey is intellectually astringent; Vane isn’t self-regarding, nor does she swivel in every passing wind. It is a lively, sometimes spiky novel, but the ideas are laid out on a plate and Wade is overdoing it when she calls it her ‘greatest’. How many of Sayers’s other fictions are merely great?
‘Great’ also raises a more general difficulty: that of setting up a new order in the old vocabulary of Leavis and Stephen I-think-continually-of-those-who-were-truly-great Spender. Charlotte Mew, who was born on the edge of the square (and rather surprisingly does have a plaque), might have prompted some different adjectives. I wish Wade had said more about her unsettling talent. Both shrinking and dramatic, Mew had less money than Wade’s chosen women who, though often broke, were not poor. She was never part of an institution and doesn’t have obvious imitators. Her poems, sometimes fractured by intensity, speak of lives defined by unhappiness. They are small in scale but not dainty, direct and not formally experimental. I doubt she is taught in many universities.
Unlike Hilda Doolittle, who was Ezra Pound’s ‘dryad’ and who, when she married the writer Richard Aldington, had her profession of poet struck out on the wedding certificate. From 1916 to 1918 HD lived in the room that Sayers later occupied, and years later went into Freudian analysis to recall her terrible time there: after the death of their baby, Aldington scampered upstairs to have sex with someone else. In seeking to make her a standard bearer of the new order, Wade overestimates HD’s novelistic gifts: she should have stuck to poetry, in which she wasn’t tempted away from silvery ellipticism. Bid Me to Live, the novel that she wrote as a therapeutic release and which is set in a disguised Mecklenburgh Square, is a tremendous biographical document with flashes of power. It has a striking portrait of D.H. Lawrence being foxy while Frieda gets on with her knitting. But as fiction it’s inert: tendril-waving and clumpingly spelled out. All psychologies underlined. Things said twice. What happened to the poet’s ear for tautology when she talks of someone as having ‘the indefinable je ne sais quoi of the aristocrat’? Bid Me to Live is like a novel about a novel: it might have been written by a character dreamed up by Virginia Woolf.
It is, however, invaluable as an account of HD’s arrangements, both emotional and practical, and Wade plunders it skilfully. The heroine in one room, the husband at it upstairs with his lover; shoes stored alongside Venetian drinking glasses; tea leaves spread out on newspaper; bottles of milk left on the landing by the maid. Lawrence advises on the best shape for a table. Who would have thought the author of Sons and Lovers might have spent a happy afternoon at Homebase? Wade creates an appetite for such detail that she doesn’t altogether satisfy. She is strong on the social aspects that made the square practical for ‘working women’: its cheapness, proximity to small presses and to the British Museum, its multi-occupant houses. But its particular architectural vividness – the way its shape and its views may have wound their way around her subjects’ thoughts – is less evident. It’s as if these women, so wide-ranging in their political and anthropological sympathies, so attentive to inner landscapes, seldom looked around them or out of the window. This may be right – but it would be good to hear more about about what they were missing.
Wade gives us a glimpse of this in opening pages that quickly conjure up the square after an air raid in 1940. Young women killed in the nurses’ home. Mr Jackson going back to No. 8 to feed his cat. John Lehmann looking at Spender’s shattered house. ‘Poor old Stephen’s the first to go,’ he said: he was wrong about that. Woolf retrieved 24 volumes of her diaries from the ruins of No. 37. There are sources to draw on. Jeanette Tawney, William Beveridge’s sister, provided a chronicle of the condition of No. 44 – the house in which first HD and then Sayers lived. Practical: she discovered a ‘primitive’ WC in a cupboard at the top of the stairs. Evocative: the stairs are such that it’s ‘possible for a long-footed man to go downstairs without turning his foot’ or making them creak. Elegiac: ‘Sunrises exist in very fact in this square; a path has been left through the house-tops for the golden rays.’ She talks of the double doors to the hall, one with leaded lights, ‘like successive courts in Eastern homes … you are ever intrigued as to what lies beyond,’ and of the square’s silence, its ‘atmosphere of past and present’. I wish Wade had not tucked away this inventory in a footnote: it goes to the heart of her project.
Just across the way from Mecklenburgh Square, at the start of Lamb’s Conduit Street, is a disused ladies’ lavatory – now boarded up but not yet turned into a nightclub or beauty salon. Outside sits the stone figure of a woman pouring water from a ewer. When I lived just three minutes away (and hadn’t read Woolf on the subject), I didn’t think of it as a statue at all, merely an elaborate loo sign. Wade points out that this is the Woman of Samaria, who ran into Jesus beside a well and talked about husbands. So her idea of the area as a nourishing place for female talent has holy backing. My walks through the squares between these streets often take me through tiny St George’s Gardens, which is flanked by the graveyards of two churches, just around the corner from the square. Wade describes a bleak encounter here between Woolf and Hope Mirrlees in April 1928. Mirrlees, wrapped in herself, passed by Woolf, and then turned back to tell her that Harrison had died the previous day. ‘We kissed,’ Woolf said, ‘by Cromwell’s daughter’s grave.’ The spark of Wade’s idea jumps beyond her own examples. Yards away from the Cromwell grave is a terracotta statue of Euterpe, muse of lyric poetry and music, a refugee from the Apollo tavern in the Tottenham Court Road. The hand that held her flute has been broken off: but, though battered, she remains golden and imposing.