The “Square” is Mecklenburgh Square London. One of two laid out on the land bought for the Thomas Coram Foundlings Hospital in the 18th century. This was located to the north west of the City of London in a largely rural area. The plot was greater than needed and sale of the excess generated income for the Hospital. Mecklenburgh proved the less “polite” of the two squares. But it lay close to important 19th century developments – The British Museum and Reading Rooms and a number of colleges – as Bloomsbury became the centre of London’s literary and intellectual life. Over the years a number of creative people of all genres moved into and through the Square. Larger houses were split into small apartments or lodgings that allowed those of uncertain income to settle here. But as the book graphically portrayed the Square suffered considerable damage in the blitz of 1940. Post war much of the area was redeveloped as buildings for international college students and its “bohemian” nature changed.
Wade introduces six creative women who lived, (not always for very long), in the Square in the early 20th century. HD, writer, wife of Richard Aldington, hostess to D H Lawrence, admirer and client of Freud, whose later writing, poetry and translations uses classical texts to explore the central place of women. Dorothy L Sayers: writer of crime fiction, but also an n exponent of presenting women’s history and theology to a wider market. Jane Ellen Harrison who arrived in the Square in 1926 having shrugged off her hard won career as a University researcher to concentrate on modern politics. Supporting Russian intellectual exiles (and through them the survival of the Russian literary cannon). Eileen Power had a long career as an historian, first at Girton and from 1921 at the LSE where she was at a centre of left wing “radical” thinkers. Early a medievalist she later became heavily involved in internationalism even though politics were increasingly fraught. She died in relative academic obscurity too far ahead of her time. Then Virginia Woolf who lived part time in the Square during the second world war, where the Hogarth Press had been re-located. Bombed out in 1940 we are told of the impact of war and her race between completion of her last book and the depression that would lead to her death.
But as Ward says the book is intended to act as a peg on which to hang an examination of the nature and geography of this place as it developed over the years, mirrored by the assessment of the women themselves at specific times in their lives. A target she meets in a compelling and readable way. We see women at the start of their careers or towards the end – but how all managed their creative impulses and activities at a time when life (and expectations) for women was changing from the restrictive Victorian period towards a wider public role.
This book is a conversation between the author, with her wide and specialist knowledge, and the reader who might (or might not) have heard of the six, might know about them, or their writings and work. All will be shown through the lens of this space Mecklenburgh and the time they were there. You will be shown how they got there and in the case of some (i.e. HD, D L Sayers) how the experience of these years bled into their later writings. Taken together they reflect the widening of opportunities for women through academia into writing across both fiction and nonfiction as they acquire “the room of their own”. But the women live within their “real” lives of partners, children, families and these expectations. Some might question why these six were chosen when others passed through over the years, but life is a series of choices and this is not the only book in the world.
This is one of those wonderful history books that takes you into a supposed topic but in fact acts as a window to a much, much, wider view and exploration of so much more. It is an affirmation that curiosity is not a crime and that all lives are many faceted. Although supposedly about the “past” many of the tropes of feminist understanding and challenges are still playing themselves out today. The only criticism that I would make of this book is that it points put how much there is still to understand and read! Not necessarily a bad thing, but my “to read” list has grown exponentially and beyond just the familiar “greens” of the Virago Press. It is eye opening in the best sense of the world, re-positioning information you may already have and enhancing the experience of so many books still to come.
Hilary White 5/4*
Square Hunting by Francesca Wade
9780571330652 Faber & Faber January 2020