A Square of One’s Own

Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars

Faber, 432pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780571330652

reviewed by Hattie Walters

In December 2019 I found myself in Mecklenburgh Square, at the heart of Bloomsbury in London. I was staying briefly at the Goodenough College – situated in the buildings that form part of the square’s contentious redevelopment after its bombing in World War II – and while I was keen to visit the Tavistock and Gordon Square stomping grounds of the Bloomsbury Group (those individuals frequently described as having ‘lived in squares . . . and loved in triangles’), it was not until reading Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting that the rich history of the square I had visited, unknowingly, roughly three months prior, was brought to my attention. Wade’s first book is a meticulously researched, intelligently considered, and deftly woven biography centring on five women as they moved in and about Mecklenburgh Square during the interwar years: the poet and imagist Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), the crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers, the classicist Jane Harrison, the historian Eileen Powers, and the novelist and critic Virginia Woolf. Wade asks us to consider these writers’ lives and works within the context of one small patch of London.

Wade begins with the square’s destruction, on the night of September 10th 1940. Houses tremble and glass splinters as an air raid swipes through the square, carving through to expose buildings beyond the immediate area, and depositing an unexploded bomb into the central garden. In starting so, Wade imbues her narrative with a sense of inevitability – a progression towards the ends of the lives of her biographical subjects, but also towards the material upheaval of the square, the destruction of its buildings and rooms, and of the vibrant, breathing, cultural texture within its walls. Before long we are in familiar territory – Woolf's room of one’s own – before being drawn into the rich world of modern Bloomsbury. One’s room, Wade reminds us through Woolf, might be our own, but there’s a risk of it remaining bare; it must be furnished, it must be shared. And it is the sharing of rooms, buildings, and squares that grounds Wade’s biography. This London is one of tumult and contingency, and Bloomsbury an alluring space of lingering dubious social connotations, offering anonymity, transience, and above all the freedom of opportunity. Mecklenburgh Square is shown to crystallise all these qualities; each woman in this volume has an independently intimate relationship with it.

Wade chronologically guides the reader through the square’s history, while also looking ahead to the air raids and rumble of gunfire. The book provokes questions upon a first reading: how might one square, a communal arrangement of dwellings where people flit in and out, seduced to an extent by the anonymity London offers, provide an efficacious contextualisation for the works of various women who lived in the square at different points in time, and sometimes for only short periods? At times, the material thread binding them feels gossamer-thin, and yet what I liked most about Wade’s book is her ability to read real importance into the conditions of these separate living arrangements, at different, often fleeting times, in the ‘dark, relatively private heart of London,’ and the points at which the women crossed paths and engaged with one another. Wade demonstrates the myriad ways in which the square’s influence was taken up by the various figures. It is fascinating to discover that a room once occupied by H.D. in misery would be taken up by Dorothy Sayers in pleasure; to read of Jane Harrison, towards the end of her life, stretched out on a chaise longue in the central garden under a green blanket, dictating to Hope Mirlees; to picture the apricot walls and blue carpet of 44 Mecklenburgh Square; to view Eileen Power’s invitation for ‘Dancing in the kitchen: morning dress’ at number 20; to read, with a sense of sadness, Woolf’s near-avoidance of the square during her brief residency at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Wade’s biography is carefully set up to illuminate each woman’s connected, yet distinct experiences of the square. Her focus is gently disrupted with well-chosen biographical detail, and an astute sense of connection beyond the square’s limits. This is especially strong in her discussion of H.D., whose experience of living at number 44 in the latter half of the First World War (and under progressively strained marital relations) is contrasted with her later, repeated attempts to analyse and situate a life’s narrative through fiction and psychoanalysis. Wade argues convincingly that this narrative, as the speaker of H.D.’s autobiographical novel HERmione declares, is stained with ‘one or two bits of colour with which all your life will be violently or delicately tinted.’ And it seems that beyond H.D., for all the women in this study, this colouring relates somehow to their time at Mecklenburgh Square.

There are points where Wade’s book strays somewhat far from its central focus, both temporally and spatially; there are times too, when her framing of the ever-fascinating Woolf might feel a little too familiar. This framing is in part an attempt to ground the study, but it also hammers home the recognition, shared by all the women in this book, and articulated most famously by Woolf, for the need for suitable living conditions to enable women to work. This appeal is embodied in their lifelong engagements in subversive, supportive, intimate relationships – often with other women – that reconsidered modern notions of parenting, family, domesticity, companionship and marriage. As such, even in chapters where less evidence remains of time in Mecklenburgh Square, or where, as is the case for Woolf, more time was spent away, Wade’s narrative progresses naturally and cleverly, with a real command for her varied material. As, for instance, the reader approaches Woolf’s growing separation from London during her roughly one year-long tenancy at number 37, Wade emphasises Woolf’s fears of disintegrating culture by moving away from the square, and toward the relative calm at Monk’s House in Rodmell, rural Sussex. If the reader were in any doubt about the formative impact of the square for each of her subjects, Wade’s intimately constructed framing can leave them in no doubt. She has a gift for conclusion, for constructing paragraphs that progress, naturally to a point, while allowing space to pick up elsewhere and reach beyond their initial focus.

Wade’s book is a reminder of the formative influence of those precarious times spent, perhaps early career, perhaps due to sudden upset, within less illustrious and hard-won lodgings. Part of the seduction lies in the tale of pre-success and personal regeneration. Many of us are now, I would wager, working and waiting for some attempt at self-definition or personal deliverance, regardless of whether we dream of attaining the kind of artistic and cultural merit of Wade’s subjects. We too would like to succeed in spite of (or despite) reoccurring turbulence, unsatisfying relationships and financial insecurity; and that success may be productive, domestic, or self-analytical. On a second reading in lockdown conditions, these thoughts felt especially poignant: there is power, and the possibility for growth, even when we are kept at a lull for the benefit of our communities, and when for many of us, the four walls of our own rooms feel especially close by.
Hattie Walters is studying for a PhD at the University of Birmingham, exploring the interrelation between modern cultures and the garden.