“A Critical Moment”: Francesca Wade, Square Haunting

square

All the women in this book thought carefully about the sort of home they wanted to live in. Though they arrived at Mecklenburgh Square at different stages of life, moving there provided each of them with a fresh start at a critical moment: the way they each chose to set up home in the square was a bold declaration of who they were, and of the life they wanted to lead.

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting is a nice new example of an old form: the collective biography. I really enjoyed reading it: it’s an elegantly constructed and well-written introduction to five remarkable women–the imagist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle); classicist Jane Harrison; historian Eileen Power; Dorothy L. Sayers; and Virginia Woolf. Starting from the very literal connection that all of them at one time (though not, mostly, the same time) lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, Wade explores other commonalities between them, especially their conviction that “real freedom entails the ability to live on one’s own terms, not to allow one’s identity to be proscribed or limited by anyone else.” For some of them, moving to Mecklenburgh Square represented their determination to live up to that insight; others came to this realization during their time there and moved away to fulfill it. Neither of these really describes Woolf’s trajectory: she is at once the best known (and most marketable) of the book’s subjects and the one whose time at Mecklenburgh Square was least significant to her formation as an individual or intellectual.

I knew very little about H.D., Jane Harrison, and Eileen Power before, so their chapters were the most novel and informative for me: Harrison in particular was a very appealing character. I already knew a fair amount about Sayers and Woolf, especially around the specific issues and time periods Wade addresses, though, and so their chapters, while also ably executed, inevitably came across as précis versions of what’s available in the very good options we have for full-length biographies–something that might well also be the case for those who knew the other three from existing treatments such as Mary Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison.

square-2This is not to say that there is nothing original about Square Haunting; Wade has not just done her homework and synthesized her findings but added details and insights of her own. Still, the most original thing about her book is its concept: grouping these five women together because they (more or less) shared an address. Wade makes the most of this geographical link, discussing the history of Bloomsbury in general and Mecklenburgh Square more specifically to clarify what it meant to choose to live there, especially for women moving away–as all her subjects were–from women’s conventional roles and paths. Having rooms of their own was both a vital practical step towards the independence they wanted and a heavily symbolic one, a point Wade makes (inevitably and rightly) with plenty of allusions to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

Wade does a nice job drawing out the thematic resonances between her subjects’ lifes and their work. Each in her own genre and with her own particular focus contributed rewriting dominant narratives and expanding our available stock of ideas about how to understand and talk about women who do not conform to them. Harrison, to give just one example,

drew on cutting-edge material evidence from the archaeological digs she’d personally witnessed, and revealed an array of powerful goddesses who once reigned alone over cult shrines . . . but whose ancient worship had silently been replaced by later cults to Zeus, their temples renamed, their powers re-attributed and their legends altered to accommodate the rationalized Olympian pantheon. These new gods, Harrison insisted, reflected not only human form but also man-made hierarchies: their rise was testament to the gradual erosion of women in Greek society.

Her “efforts to reread history through the lens of gender and power” had far-reaching influence, Wade observes:

Her legends of powerful, creative, and vengeful women–and her compelling evidence of the way women have been systematically devalued by centuries of patriarchy–inspired others, over subsequent decades, in their creation of female characters, from E. M. Forster’s Schlegel sisters to James Joyce’s Molly Bloom, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, and D. H. Lawrence’s Brangwen women.

v-woolfHarrison is the “J—- H—-” of A Room of One’s Own:

on the terrace, as if popping out to breathe the air, to glance at the garden, came a bent figure, formidable yet humble, with her great forehead and her shabby dress–could it be the famous scholar, could it be J— H— herself?

Woolf met Harrison at Newnham in 1904 and “Harrison’s work,” Wade tells us, “gave Woolf a new, subversive model of history which informed all her subsequent novels and essays: one whose revelations offered powerful ‘mothers’ for women to ‘think back through’ and which revealed as man-made–and flimsy–the constructs on which patriarchal society rests.”

Wade makes many more connections than that, both biographical and thematic, and they are all interesting and convincing. Still, by the time I’d finished the book I couldn’t shake the feeling that its organizing premise is a bit thin. Mecklenburgh Square is a clever framing device, but it’s hardly essential to the more substantive discussions Wade gets into about her writers: it’s an excuse or an occasion for the book’s particular biographical studies. Many other women around this time had much in common with Wade’s chosen five, for one thing: Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, for instance, who make occasional appearances but happened to live at a different Bloomsbury address. Again, Wade makes the most of her geographical conceit, and it’s mostly successful. I especially liked her conclusion, with its neat revelation that there is now a room reserved for women students in the exact location (as far as researchers can establish) as Woolf’s study in her home at 37 Mecklenburgh Square, which was destroyed in the Blitz. At other times, though, I thought the effort required to sustain or and justify the book’s concept showed through. Probably because I have spent so much (so far fruitless) time trying to imagine how to package and pitch the kind of literary writing I like to do (including about some of these same writers and questions) I found myself almost more impressed with Square Haunting as a successful publishing concept than anything else–as a lesson in, or a reminder of, what sells: biography, of course, or autobiography or bibliomemoir.

room

The reasons for this are probably similar to the reasons collective biography has always served: we still seek models and exemplars, though now we are more likely to find them in rebels and nonconformists than in the kinds of women celebrated in Victorian examples. The women in Square Haunting serve that purpose for me too, and I have found my own ramblings around Bloomsbury inspiring because for me too it is a place that represents a fantasy of liberation, both personal and intellectual. (As Wade points out, that really is a fantasy now, given what it would now cost to rent or own a flat there: it is no longer hospitable to make-shift bohemianism.) On my UK trip last summer I spent a lot of happy time roaming around and sitting and thinking in both Gordon Square and Tavistock Square, which were Woolf’s addresses at other times in her life. Wade has convinced me I should wander over to Mecklenburgh Square on my next visit, just to complete my tour. What a nice thought: to be a literary tourist again, brushing up once more against the materiality of those whose work continues to expand my mental horizons. As this shut-in time wears on and wears me down, it helps to imagine doing a little more ‘square haunting’ of my own some day.

Gordon-Square

5 thoughts on ““A Critical Moment”: Francesca Wade, Square Haunting

  1. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 8, 2020 / 11:27 am

    I see that in January I was within a block of Mecklenburgh Square, but I did not know its history. Next time. Such interesting subjects.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 9, 2020 / 4:00 pm

      I got very close last year too but was looking for other places. It’s such a nice area to roam around in, isn’t it?

  2. Veronica May 11, 2020 / 2:12 pm

    Thank you for this magnificent review! Virginia Woolf is my favourite author, and I am interested in historical, as well as social connections between different people, so reading this book would be a great pleasure. 🙂

  3. Karen Bourrier May 20, 2020 / 9:59 pm

    I just finished this book yesterday and very much enjoyed the chapters on Harrison and Power. It’s nice to see academics treated as writers. And I’m always in for collective biography of women! My one disappointment was that Jane Harrison’s “reenactment of birth” in Mecklenburgh Square was not a literal reeactment of birth which I somehow had hoped for from the phrasing in the introduction!

  4. Liz Mc2 June 8, 2020 / 3:16 pm

    So grateful to the Vancouver Public Library for stepping up its digital collection, from which I borrowed this. I enjoyed it very much although I wish I could have been reading it at a time when I had more focus and attention. When I was a women’s college undergraduate I would have loved this book so much and definitely seen these women, with their dedication to their work and desire to create new, independent lives, as exemplars. Reading it now, I wondered where all my energy and passion have gone; maybe Wade’s subjects who lived in the Square as older women, still re-inventing themselves, can be my examplars now. And here’s to a future possibility of literary tourism!

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