Square haunting: five women, freedom and London between the wars | Francesca Wade

A wonderful read for anyone with an interest in Bloomsbury and/or feminist history and/or LGB history and/or London psychogeography and/or the intersections thereof. Francesca Wade looks at five women who lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square at various points in the first half of the twentieth century – three literary (H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers and Virginia Woolf) and two academic (Eileen Power and Jane Harrison.)

The portraits of these notable women are written with warmth and curiosity (and larded with some nice gossipy titbits, don’t judge me), bringing their personalities and work to life, situating them in their homes and local networks. This is not to domesticise these women – they weren’t just impressive thinkers but very much doers – and looks at where and how they worked, in terms of home life, London life, and the community of artists, authors, publishers and campaigners of that time. Francesca Wade really captures how interconnected these strands were, and the alternative community that was open to women who wanted / needed to be useful and creative, rather than decorative household fixtures.

The book spans the early twentieth century mainly, focusing on the artistic eruption of interwar years, the aftermath of WW1 and the horror of WW2 – she draws on contemporary accounts to depict vividly London under the Blitz and the destruction of part of Mecklenburgh Square in particular, the Woolfs forlornly picking through the rubble to see what could be salvaged from their home. Wade captures both the horrific immediacy of nightly bombing raids and their wider ripples, socially and psychologically; also the curious tension and freedom of the preceding years of uneasy peace, rapidly changing social conditions, new art forms, and all that went with that.

I liked how Wade foregrounds the political aspect of Bloomsbury. Rather than an ivory tower of writers and artists theorising in drawing rooms, she describes a community that was very much about campaigning, activism and social justice, very politicised, with a continued discussion about the relationship between art, literature, politics and current social issues. For me it also really underlined the need for community, in art and activism. These were all women who were outside the establishment despite the varying degrees of privilege they were born into – none fitted into the academic or literary canon, or conformed to the traditional life-route of middle class women, and had to carve their own way. The mutual support from and deep friendships with other women that gave them the encouragement and stimulation to work, beyond the usual narrative of supportive husbands, a good income and a room of one’s own was a real pleasure to read.

The final chapter is quite melancholy. Woolf and Sayers have never gone out print, but H.D. had to be revived by the Virago Press in the 1980s despite being huge in her time. Harrison and Power’s work was either taken to be that of male academics or forgotten, as must have been the lot of so many women in those fields then, but Wade highlights their influence on the thinking of the time, in Bloomsbury and more widely. An excellent work of women’s history, London history, early C20th cultural history, and a really enjoyable, engaging and inspiring read.