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The square root of five women

A small patch of London encouraged high thoughts and hard work in the unconventional female writers who made it their home.

Square Haunting is at once a tribute to Virginia Woolf’s powerful concept of a woman’s need for a room of her own, and an exploration of the contradictions and messy compromises so often involved in fulfilling that need. Francesca Wade’s subtitle, “Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars”, suggests the wide scope of this very readable and enjoyable book, which combines topography with group biography and social commentary.

 The central square of this literary map is Mecklenburgh Square, where all five women had lived, in overlapping periods. As Wade reminds us, Dorothy L Sayers’s “greatest” novel, Gaudy Night, begins with the sentences “Harriet Vane sat at her writing table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square. The late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden…” Many women of my generation were captivated by Gaudy Night and the questions it posed about the conflict between academe and marriage, scholarship and sex. And it still has a following, for these conflicts have not gone away. Academe, in Sayers’s thriller, is Oxford, the cloister, celibacy and servants; the Square represents sexual and intellectual freedom, independence and, for some of its female inhabitants, a fair amount of self-catering.

Sayers was proud of being wooed by the undeserving but desired writer and translator John Cournos over a dinner in the Square of “five courses, and they were all thoroughly successful, and none of them came out of tins – except the jelly mixture, of course”. We also learn that Sayers had “delightful underclothing, all over little purple parrots”, and a futurist bedcover in orange, black and violet. This was freedom indeed, and an income as well as a room of her own.

The freedom involved disastrous love affairs and an illegitimate and largely unacknowledged child, but it also brought her wealth, fame and lasting success – and these were what she wanted most. Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey live on in Sayers’s fiction, although they represent a vanished world of class and privilege. Sayers never achieved the kind of evenly balanced and free relationship she posited, but at least she imagined it. As Doris Lessing might have said, she sketched out “a beautiful, impossible blueprint”.

There is quite a lot in this book about cooking and the problems of domesticity in a small space, some of them reminiscent of Katharine Whitehorn’s 1961 classic, Cooking in a Bedsitter. “The kitchens of history” were the chosen study of another and less well known of Wade’s subjects, the stylishly dressed and well-connected historian and LSE political activist Eileen Power, who lived in the Square from 1922 until her death in 1940. Her “surprise bestseller”, Medieval People (1924), was advertised as a “classic of social history”, and focused on the lives of those women whom history usually overlooked, as had her Medieval English Nunneries (1922), both titles familiar to Woolf.

Wade claims that there was a conscious tradition of “Mecklenburgh Square women resetting the boundaries of history”, and she makes a good case for a sense of female solidarity shared by these five women, whose personal lives were often chaotic and unorthodox. None of them had what the dons and scouts in Gaudy Night would have classified as regular marriages, and all had unconventional views of sexuality.

The private life of the American-born poet Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), who published as HD, was a flamboyant roller-coaster, the outlines of which are obscured by her many fictionalised versions of it and by Freudian interpretations from the master himself. She was extremely tall and in her prime very famous. She was involved for years with Ezra Pound, and married Richard Aldington, to whom she was not physically attracted, and with whom she co-edited the imagist periodical the Egoist. (Aldington was also a friend of Cournos, the unsuccessful but prolific writer for whom Sayers cooked and with whom she had an affair: these literary lives had many linkages.)

HD had a child called Perdita by another dubious literary character called Cecil Gray, and was the long-term associate of the philanthropic and gender-ambivalent poet Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), who at times overbearingly and insistently protected her and Perdita. (HD and Bryher described themselves as cousins, to pre-empt speculation about their relationship, and Bryher also masked it by two marriages, one to a man who was also HD’s lover.) Freud apparently had told HD that she was the “perfect bisexual”, thus illustrating Woolf’s vision of the androgynous writer. In HD’s own view, her life was a success; she had a long career, many relationships, many friends and four grandchildren. An experimental life, but not an unhappy one.

Perdita was to remember playing under the table while Bryher tried to write: her mother was the more important partner, and not to be disturbed. Wade concludes, “For HD, Bryher enabled a way of life where motherhood and creative work could be combined, if precariously: a life she had not felt possible.”

The oldest of Wade’s principal subjects is the classical scholar Jane Harrison, born in 1850, who lived in Mecklenburgh Street for the last two years of her life, dying there in 1928. Although her scholarship is dated, some of her pioneering concepts about matriarchy live on, and she is remembered for Woolf’s evocation of her in A Room of One’s Own, “formidable yet humble, with her great forehead and her shabby dress”, and for Augustus John’s portrait of her, which hangs in Newnham College, Cambridge, of which she was a fellow.

Shabby she may have been in old age, but in her youth she had been (like most of Wade’s five) showily dressed, as she travelled the country delivering histrionic lectures “in spangled satin gowns, strings of Egyptian beads and a glittering shawl”: there is a photograph of her leaning dramatically against a pillar, robed as Alcestis, dated 1887. She was not a dowdy don.

Her career was undoubtedly hampered by her gender, a fact which she resented, and she is said to have had various “romantic disappointments”. Nevertheless she strikes the reader as a scholar of exceptional gifts. Some of the most interesting pages in this book describe her passion for languages: she took up Russian during the First World War and told Gilbert Murray that learning the language made her “weep for joy”. “Specifically, Harrison was fascinated by Russian grammar, especially the far-famed much-dreaded imperfective aspect – a tense which captures a sense of ongoing action and expresses a collective memory of a past beyond that of the individual…”

Harrison attended Henri Bergson’s lectures, and was much taken with his formulation of la durée, which considered time as an ongoing concept and a series of changes that permeate one another. Wade’s application of this concept to modernism and to the works of Woolf, Joyce and Proust is useful and revealing. We see how the lives in the Square were in flux, ebbing and flowing into one another and creating something larger and more lasting than themselves.

Like HD, Harrison became involved in later life with an adoring and controlling writer, Hope Mirrlees, a woman considerably younger than herself, and more unambiguously committed to what Woolf referred to as “sapphism”. They travelled together, lived abroad together, worked at home together and shared fantasies about bears. Mirrlees, whose work has recently received more attention, was blamed for the bonfire that Harrison made of her papers on leaving Cambridge in 1922, which left much of her life undocumented.

Woolf’s life, in contrast, has been perhaps over-recorded and it continues to attract the intense scrutiny of scholars. Number 37 Mecklenburgh Square was the last London home of the Woolfs and the Hogarth Press: they moved there from Tavistock Square in August 1939, amid sandbags and the construction of air-raid shelters. They found the kitchen very small, the stairs bad, and no carpets. This was not a good time. They travelled backwards and forwards to Sussex until the Square was bombed and extensively damaged in September 1940. The section on the last two years of Woolf’s life shows her struggling to adapt to the constant movement, to her village neighbours, to war and loss and the very real threat of invasion. She needed to keep working and she needed to resurrect the past.

To these years belong her life of Roger Fry (1940), her last novel, Between the Acts (1941), and an attempt at memoir, in which she tries to recall the lives of the maids and servants who had waited on the Stephen family when she was a child.

Wade repeatedly stresses the constant pressure of living with servants. A writer needs a room of her own, and a couple, married or unmarried, may well need a house of their own, without domestic spies. The women of the Square were leading privileged if precarious lives, some supported by family money, and they were dependent on the labour of other women – of maids, servants, cooks and cleaners. The only way for a professional woman to avoid domesticity altogether was to live in a woman’s college, a point made again and again in Gaudy Night, and a point that certainly occurred to me and my contemporaries at Cambridge. If we stayed on and took the gown, we would never have to lay our own fires, change our own beds, cook our own dinners. I still think about this from time to time, and wonder if I made the right choice.

The Woolfs went to some lengths to square their socialist consciences with regard to their servants, but it could not be done. Virginia could fantasise about a life without cooking, but she couldn’t face the cleaning. I once had an unpleasant exchange of letters with Rebecca West on this topic – I think I had taken exception to her grandly moaning about “the servant problem”.

Alison Light explored this perilous territory in her ground-breaking Mrs Woolf and the Servants (2007), and Wade is acutely aware of the ongoing problems that confront women when they employ other less advantaged women to do their dirty work. Feminist though she was, Woolf in 1940 could contemplate, albeit playfully, a biography of her servant Mabel, expressed in the shocking phrase “how profoundly succulent it [would] be… her subterranean London life”. No reason why one shouldn’t write the life of a servant, or of a dog, but the word “succulent” is deeply offensive.

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. 

Margaret Drabble’s most recent novel is “The Dark Flood Rises” (Canongate)

Square Haunting
Francesca Wade
Faber & Faber, 432pp, £20

This article appears in the 10 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran