3 March 2020

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

Listening to a podcast in the middle of the night is my favourite way to fend off insomnia.  It's a rare thing to remember more than a few minutes of an episode so I have to repeat it during my walk with Kip in the morning.  But just over a month ago I put on an episode of The Bookseller podcast.  The guests were discussing titles they were looking forward to when Square Haunting was mentioned.  In less than a minute I was wide awake, on Google, looking up the synopsis and price.  My copy arrived two weeks later.

Of the five women Francesca Wade writes about, I was familiar with one (Virginia Woolf), vaguely familiar with another (Dorothy L. Sayers), and knew absolutely nothing about the other three (H.D., Jane Ellen Harrison and Eileen Power).  Themes running through the stories of each woman's life include the impact of war, inequality, the challenge of expectation as it relates to a woman's place in the home and/or society, and education. Their address in Mecklenburgh Square, and in one case on Mecklenburgh Street was a common link to all five.

To read about incredibly smart women being denied a degree or having their work rated from a male perspective made me feel such frustration on their behalf.  But, in most cases, these women were more than capable of standing up for themselves.

'Later in life, Sayers would ride a motorcycle and dress in masculine attire ('If the trousers do not attract you.' she insisted in an essay, 'so much the worse; for the moment I do not want to attract you.  I want to enjoy myself as a human being.')

Dorothy L. Sayers was certainly interested in having a partner but knew that marriage would result in barriers to her writing that wouldn't be an issue for a man.  She did have a child out of wedlock but there was no question of keeping him with her.  Dorothy was fortunate to have a cousin who fostered children so in time she was asked to look after the writer's son, but he remained a secret.  The drive to write successfully enough to make a living from it meant sacrifices both large and small but Sayers put her moments of penury to good use.   Lord Peter was written as possessing a large income....

'After all it cost me nothing and at that time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him.  When I was dissatisfied with m single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly.  When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet.  When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it.'

Another woman that Wade researched is Jane Ellen Harrison who left Cambridge University at the age of seventy-two.  She preferred living at the college because there were staff to do the cooking and cleaning which allowed time for study and intellectual companionship.  Although, as wonderful as it is to imagine a life free of domestic chores, Harrison's reason for leaving the college was the endless atmosphere of being treated as a second-class citizen because she was female.  This is a woman who learned to speak an Icelandic language so she could read Norse poetry.  It's outrageous!

I cheered Eileen Power for being outspoken while claiming her worth when offered a new position.

'The vacancy to which Power was appointed in 1921 had been originally intended as a readership commanding a salary of £800; when Power was approached she was offered, instead, the position of lecturer at £500 a year.  When she accepted the job, she expressed her hope that this offer was only the beginning, 'because I can't possibly continue for long making only that in a non-resident post in London.  I do not really think it is good enough for the amount of work.'

She also challenged the bank when they automatically changed her account to her husband's last name upon marriage.  She won the right to keep the account in her maiden name.  I have no end of admiration for this woman.  Indeed, for all of the women written about in this book.

Apparently, the neighbourhood of Bloomsbury wasn't the shiniest or most desirable of places to rent a flat.  Perhaps not to those from the upper classes, but a small flat overlooking a garden was just about affordable for a single woman and certain freedoms would be considered priceless.  The boarding rooms lining the streets and squares were filled with artists, writers, actors and poets; a ready-made community of like-minded people.  Virginia Woolf didn't wholly embrace her new lodgings in Mecklenburgh Square but her move there had more to do with being bombed out of Tavistock Square and she missed her familiar surroundings.

Square Haunting is a fascinating read, striking the right balance of research with intriguing personal detail.  The wider my knowledge of twentieth century authors and artists (specifically women) becomes, the more fun it is to connect the dots, so to speak.  And Bloomsbury is my home of choice while visiting London so I very much appreciated learning more about the history of the area.  The walk to Persephone Books takes me past Coram's Fields so I've just missed Mecklenburgh Square by a couple of minutes.  It will definitely be a stop during my next trip so I can imagine it all.

Finally, thank you Francesca for adding the sigh-inducing act of benevolence on the part of Goodenough College.  I love that they've traced the spot where Virginia Woolf's study would have been within the new building now standing there.

'Now, that room is given over each year to a woman student.  She arrives in London, nervous or excited about what the city may offer her as she embarks on her new course of study.  She crosses Mecklenburgh Square, climbs the stairs, turns the key in the door of her new home, and finds a book sitting on the desk, ready for her to turn the first page:  A Room of One's Own.'

     'Looking down on Mecklenburgh Square' by Margaret Jolliffe


  1. Oh I can't wait to read this! Great review. I took a walk around lovely Mecklenburgh Square a couple of years ago, or at least I tried too, but it is private property now and chained up so you can only peer through the gate or hedge. Such a shame. Also, of course, Doughty Street is just around the corner where E M Delafield's Provincial Lady rented a flat in the 1930's.

    1. It is a shame, isn't it. A lunchtime reading session in the square would be a nice way to spend some time but oh well, Russell Square it is then!
      The first time I met Simon, Rachel and Mary we ended up enjoying some cupcakes across from Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby's former home on Doughty Steet. I need to research a dedicated walk through this neighbourhood to pinpoint where more of these important women lived. Any excuse to plan a trip, to be honest....

  2. I remember that, and we couldn't find a bench so we ended up sitting on a doorstep. I doubt my knees would get me up/down from a doorstep these days!
    Now wishing I'd ordered this book from the library before lockdown although I'm guessing I have hundreds of unread books on the TBR pile and now is their moment; let alone those read but forgotten. Hard to settle down.

    1. It's so true, isn't it. I should have read a whole book by now but it seems obligatory to check in with the news, and once you're sitting down with a cup of tea...there's an hour gone.
      You can always count on me for a hand up off the doorstep, Mary! Take care....