I would read more nonfiction if it were as interesting and diverting as Square Haunting. Longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, it follows the lives of five women who were pioneers in their fields from the turn of the Twentieth century till WW2 and who set themselves up to rock the patriarchal boat and break contemporary sexual and social taboos. Of two I had some knowledge, Virginia Woolf and Dorothy L. Sayers, of the others, none, but the breadth of fascinating detail Wade has uncovered about these women, their famous associates, and life in the London Blitz has me eager to re-read the book. Something I rarely do.
Inspired by the author’s discovery of a blue ‘celebrity-lived-here’ plaque for Hilda Doolittle in Mecklenburg Square in Bloomsbury, London, this is more than a set of biographies, it is a sweeping literary and social history of notable women living in Meckelenburg Square at various times. Ms Wade has skilfully woven their lives into a rich tapestry of place, time, and politics. The feminist tropes of rebellion against a women’s nineteenth century limited lot – denied advanced education, lacking voting rights, pushed into marriage, domesticity, and motherhood -are well documented, and there are many works on suffragettes and the Bloomsbury set. But this book covers new territory.
I had not heard of American poet Hilda Doolittle, known as ‘HD,’ close friend to Ezra Pound, lover to D.H. Lawrence (a fellow ‘Imagist’ poet), she remained in her beloved London even during the Blitz. Her marriage to writer Richard Adlington, his subsequent sequential adultery, and the tragedy of her stillborn daughter, all found their way into Hilda’s novels.
Though I knew of Dorothy L Sayers, it was a surprise to learn she hated her crime novels, penned to stay afloat financially in her early career, and that she wrote ‘ad copy’ jingles for Colman’s Mustard and Guinness! Nor that, sadly, she had a secret child, whose birth was facilitated by her lover’s wife, but who was brought up by Sayers’ cousin.
Jane Ellen Harrison was also new to me. A classicist and anthropologist at Cambridge, then Oxford, when women were unable to graduate, she was renowned as a great scholar. In later life her interest turned to Russia and early religion. A closet lesbian at a time when it was associated with ‘overeducation, prostitution, alcohol, night clubs divorce, and vampires’ according to a Parliamentary debate vowing to make it a crime, her colourful life reads better than most novels.
Ellen Power was a Cambridge lecturer in medieval history who travelled on a scholarship to Egypt, India, China, Japan, Canada, and North America. A trail blazer, she was an avid campaigner for women’s right to graduate, bemoaning Cambridge’s reluctance to follow Oxford in granting permission. Moving to the London School of Economics, she too rented a house in Mecklenburg Square. The book is peppered with anecdotes on John Maynard Keynes, Rebecca West, Vita Sackville-West (with whom she had an affair) and Power’s resignation from a club refusing entry to her friend Paul Robson. Vocal on equality and internationally feted as a historian and author, her book Medieval People (1924) was a Penguin bestseller. Post WW1 she was a fierce supporter of the League of Nations, like her friend HG Wells, and a broadcaster on BBC radio. She died in 1940 around the time Virginia Woolf moved along the road into 37 Mecklenburg Square.
There have been numerous books on Woolf, but Wade’s biographical on her is interesting, not least for its detail on the London Blitz. After a bombing, in came the rescuers and first aiders, then the gas company to secure leaks, then the Electricity Board – not to ensure there were no live wires, but to remove the coin-filled meters.
The author has previously written for The London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. This, her first book, is a mastery of meticulous research in first-hand material – although she notes that, curiously, two of these women insisted all their personal papers be destroyed on their deaths. Beautifully referenced, it stands out as one of the best books on feminist history that I have read.