Sometimes the right book comes along at exactly the right time – and recently I’ve been lucky enough for this to happen often. The latest example is Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, a fascinating, in-depth look at the lives of five women who lived and worked in Bloomsbury between the wars. While a couple of them are well known – Virginia Woolf and Dorothy L. Sayers – I have to confess that I was unacquainted with the work of poet H.D., classicist Jane Harrison or historian Eileen Power. Perhaps because they were unknown to me I found their stories utterly inspiring, and this book filled me with desire to follow their lead and expand the horizons of my knowledge.
Coincidentally, last month saw me attending a conference in Mecklenburgh Square, the Bloomsbury garden square referenced in the title, where all five women made their home at some stage between 1918 and 1939. Rather than setting out to relate each of these remarkable lives in full – a project that would be well beyond the scope of any normal biography – the book chronicles the years that each woman spent in Mecklenburgh Square, expanding briefly into her life before and after to explore what effect Bloomsbury had on her career and what it was that had brought her there. Almost without exception, that driving force was the search for freedom – to find a place in which ‘to succeed on her own terms’.
It is in this drawing of parallels between the lives of her subjects that Francesca Wade has succeeded spectacularly. As well as relating the fascinating ins and outs of the women’s lives – which in true Bloomsbury fashion featured all manner of affairs, flirtations, fast friendships and bitter quarrels – she draws an illuminating portrait of what it was to be a certain type of woman in the early twentieth century. As the suffragettes marched for the right to vote, these women turned their brilliant minds not just to supporting the Suffrage Movement, but also to pacifism, education, international politics and the right to be awarded a university degree. Whether they wrote fiction or poetry, lectured on classics or economics, married and had children or lived with other women, they were all fiercely intelligent and devoted their lives to advancing women’s position in both academia and society. Each knew that ‘the world was skewed against her’ and set out to fight it with all she had. Having been to university myself and taken it pretty much for granted, I now feel that I owe a serious debt of gratitude to the women who made it possible.
While things may have come on quite a lot since the early 1900s, I was struck by some interesting parallels between life as a female then and life as a female now. Eileen Power, for example, was one of the most brilliant minds of her generation, but particularly as a young woman she struggled to reconcile her desire to look feminine with her wish to be taken seriously as a scholar. I wonder how many of us females can relate to that? And while Virginia Woolf may have immortalised the concept, each also recognised that having a room of her own, both literally and metaphorically, was absolutely vital for her to have the career she aspired to. Their arrival in the boarding houses and private flats of Mecklenburgh Square, at the heart of literary Bloomsbury, was very much an attempt to meet that basic requirement.
Despite their newfound freedom – literal space in which to think and write – many of the women found themselves embroiled in struggles with male partners who were reluctant to give them the credit, space or voice they deserved. They also tussled with themselves, particularly in younger years, only gradually growing into their characters and intellects, learning how to explore their ideas and ambitions with confidence. Almost every single one of them, but particularly Dorothy L. Sayers and Jane Harrison, specifically advocated the pleasures of ageing. This was one of the most surprising and inspiring elements of the book for me, standing out in stark opposition to a world in which I often feel we are expected to do everything as young as possible, achieve our very best without delay. Instead, Wade describes how these women proved the possibility of growing into oneself slowly, with surety and grace.
As well as having a few new literary heroines to research (the book contains pages of notes and an excellent bibliography), I found this a particularly relevant read alongside my translated fiction pick of the month, the South Korean feminist sensation Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. The fact that I can draw so many parallels between life in 1920s London and modern-day Seoul is vaguely astonishing, but in combination they have reminded me to question what I know, not to take things for granted and, like Francesca Wade’s five subjects, never to stop learning about the world.
Square Haunting is a feminist book of the best kind. Never angry, never preachy, it quietly but convincingly illuminates how much women have achieved and hints at what remains to be done. A tantalising window on to five extraordinary lives, it left me inspired and thirsty for knowledge – of books, history, politics, culture, yes . . . but also a deeper knowledge of myself.
My rating: 4/5