Image Credit: Faber & Faber, 2020
Having previously watched some of the fascinating events the York Festival of Ideas had to offer, I decided to tune in to another one that caught my eye. Even the slightest mention of Virginia Woolf and I’m there. On the penultimate day of the festival, the evening event named after Francesca Wade’s debut book Square Haunting involved an animated conversation between Elaine Kasket, author and psychology lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, and Francesca Wade, author of the group biography, published in January this year.
Wade began by detailing her inspiration for the book, noting how she initially came across Mecklenburg Square by chance, on an evening walk. Delving deeper into the history of the often-overlooked area of Bloomsbury, she found that it had been home to five influential women between 1916 and 1940. The title of her book plays on a quote by one of the most well-known, Virginia Woolf. In a diary entry, Woolf recalled the joy brought about by “street sauntering and square haunting”. As well as the title, Woolf also highly influenced the main idea permeating Wade’s book, that the women were all looking for a room of their own in which to flourish as individuals.
In order for the audience to further understand the significance of the location, Kasket proceeded to ask Wade if she could paint a picture of Mecklenburg Square. Pinpointing the precise location within the bustling capital, she explained that the square is located on the eastern edge of Bloomsbury, known as London’s literary quarter. Drawing upon the famous remark made by Dorothy Parker, Wade laughed about the fact that the Bloomsbury group were well known to have “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.” During the event, she addressed all but the circles, moving on to explore an interesting love triangle that emerged.
Although the women didn’t all know of each other, there was certainly some cross over in their love interests. The imagist poet Hilda Doolittle (also known as HD) and crime writer Dorothy Sayers lived in the same room two years apart. Not only did they share the same flat but also pursued a relationship with the same man (although notably at different times). Wade explained how said man, the Russian émigré writer John Cournos, proceeded to write novels about both women which were far from flattering. Neither woman had much luck after that. Sayers was abandoned by her partner shortly after giving birth and HD’s husband had an affair.
Many of the women in Square Haunting defied convention in almost every sense. Living in alternative family set ups and pursuing unconventional relationships, they freed themselves of society's expectations. Wade detailed how HD went on to meet English novelist Bryher in 1918 and became her partner for the next 40 years. Each of the women were interested in the type of relationships that would best allow them to thrive. Moving to the square helped as it allowed them to be among like minded individuals. Later in the talk, Wade explained how the square was situated in close proximity to the publishing houses and the British Library, a place that was free for anyone to read in. Ultimately, Mecklenburg Square provided a space for women who didn’t want to go straight from their family home to a martial one.
As well as defying convention in their personal lives, some also fought to give women a voice in their work, reclaiming areas of male dominated history and creating change. The classicist Jane Harrison’s main occupation was rediscovering ancient mother goddesses. Wade expressed that she ‘blew open’ classical scholarship. In doing so, Harrison showed that women were actually powerful within ancient communities. Eileen Power took a similar stance; she was involved in pacifism and nationalism across the 1930s. Within her work, she strove to teach children the important message that they were part of the larger world and not just this country. Both Harrison and Power wanted to reimagine what history could be.
As the talk drew to a close, Wade revealed the most interesting discovery she had made during her research for the book. Late into her research, she met the son of Power’s husband Michael Postan, who allowed her to see a series of letters from 1940, just before she died. These letters detailed how Power wished to be remembered. The preservation of all five women’s lives and works in books like Square Haunting is just one way in which their dedication and ground-breaking works will be remembered for a long time to come. The five women who shared one address pushed boundaries and were hugely successful in doing so.