Anne Chisholm is touched by Francesca Wade's portrait of five women writers, who all found a home in the same London square.
The appetite for straightforward cradle-to-grave biographies has dwindled, among writers as well as readers. But the genre of biography is resilient, and new approaches to telling life stories have produced outstanding books. Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London between the Wars, is one of them. Francesca Wade’s first book is a bold account, not just of her subjects, but of the time and space they shared.
Between 1916 and 1940, she has discovered, five very different female writers lived, at different times, in the same place, each in dire need of “a room of one’s own”. One of them coined the phrase, and this book is partly an homage to Virginia Woolf, and an amplification of that essay’s plea for independence.
The rooms were in Mecklenburgh Square, on the eastern edge of Bloomsbury, now mainly composed of architecturally bland student halls of residence, then of handsome (if battered) Georgian houses, divided into flats and bedsits. Rents were reasonable, the British Museum and London University were nearby, and the neighbourhood, while retaining a reassuring air of faded respectability, attracted between the wars an exhilarating mixture of politically and socially progressive intellectuals, artists and writers.
Not least of Wade’s achievements is showing how much more was going on in and around Bloomsbury, and the eponymous Group, than is often assumed. Although Wade firmly anchors each woman’s story to the period – which lasted only a year or two, except in one case – they spent in the square, she is confident and adept enough to include as much or as little of the rest of their lives as she finds interesting.
She starts with the American modernist poet Hilda Doolittle, always known at her childhood friend Ezra Pound’s behest as H D, who moved to a large room in number 44 in 1916 desperate to re-establish her identity as a writer after the loss of a baby, while in a failing marriage to the novelist Richard Aldington. All the women in the book grappled with the fundamental and recurring problem of how to manage love as well as work; H D learnt during her time in the Square that “real freedom entails the ability to live on one’s own terms”.
Aldington left her, and her emotional difficulties between 1916 and 1918 were acute, but she produced striking poetry, translated Euripides and helped to edit The Egoist magazine before moving away to have a daughter and settle into a lasting, sustaining partnership with another woman, the novelist Bryher. She put her earlier struggles into a series of novels and memoirs, skilfully disentangled by Wade but not much read today.
Into H D’s vacant room, in 1920, moved the aspiring writer and eventual bestseller Dorothy L Sayers, already a sturdy, cheerfully eccentric young woman with an Oxford degree. Unlike H D and Bryher, who had money, Sayers was struggling to survive without falling back on teaching until her first novel, Whose Body?, written in Mecklenburgh Square and featuring the erudite aristocratic amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, appeared to instant acclaim.
But Sayers, too, had trouble with men, falling for the repellent John Cournos, a Russian émigré writer and a fellow Mecklenburgh Square resident, who had been in love with H D but treated Sayers with disdain. Sayers tried to believe in free love, but considered contraception a “beastly restriction” and found herself pregnant by a married man. To preserve appearances, and desperate to continue her writing career, she had the baby in secret, arranged for him to be brought up by a cousin and kept his existence quiet to the end of her life.
Wade shows most convincingly how Sayers funnelled her own problems into the character of the fiercely independent but emotionally vulnerable Harriet Vane, a glamorous alter ego to whom Sayers was able to deliver a happy ending in her most famous book about clever women, Gaudy Night.
The most surprising of the square quintet is surely the Cambridge classical scholar Jane Harrison, who arrived there in 1926 at the age of 75, having decided to leave academia and make a new life for herself. Despite her brilliance and originality, as she used textual and archeological research to “shake the foundations of classical scholarship” and establish the importance of female presence and power in the ancient world, she had been frustrated by academic bodies and overlooked in favour of younger, male colleagues.
Now, accompanied by her pupil and acolyte Hope Mirrlees, Harrison, who seemed to have decided early that romance and marriage were not for her, took up the study of Russian literature and language, and the company of Russian exiles. She developed a passion for bears (the two women kept a favourite teddy) and openly expressed her dislike of patriarchal and arbitrary authority. Dismissed by some as tiresomely eccentric, Harrison was loved and admired by younger women, including Woolf, and by later generations of women scholars and writers, including the young Mary Beard.
Overlapping with Harrison, the social historian and economist Eileen Power moved to the Square in 1922 and lived there until her death in 1940. She, too, was a Cambridge academic who had moved on, leaving Girton for the London School of Economics. Power went on, Wade writes, to “forge a new image for a woman intellectual”. Her first book had been a 700-page study of medieval nunneries, but an interest in China and the League of Nations, as well as the more politically charged LSE, shifted her focus.
Wade is slightly hampered here by a dearth of personal material, but establishes that Power, who was good-looking and loved clothes and parties, held a lively salon in the Square, where clever young men from the LSE, such as Hugh Gaitskell and the great socialist historian R H Tawney, her neighbour and friend, would dance in her kitchen and talk politics all night. In time, she married a young and brilliant pupil, Munia Postan, and engineered for him the Cambridge professorship that could have been hers.
Wade has chosen to begin and end her book with Virginia Woolf, whose brief time in Mecklenburgh Square from 1939 ended with her house destroyed, like many others, by bombs, and her retreat to Rodmell, where she took her life. Woolf had finished her biography of Roger Fry, written her last novel, begun her memoirs and a study of English writing. The Hogarth Press, which she founded, also briefly operated there.
The end of Square Haunting is deeply sad, but also inspiring, as Wade lists the “fizz of ideas” that Woolf was producing and the work she was planning until her last days. In the end, this book is a tribute by a gifted young female writer to five remarkable predecessors, with whose struggle to be taken seriously she clearly identifies. It may stretch a few points and cut a few corners; but it is quite an achievement.
Anne Chisholm is the editor of Carrington’s Letters by Dora Carrington (Vintage). Square Haunting is published by Faber at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop