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Review by Karen Langley

Square Haunting Francesca Wade Faber

“Square Haunting” was published to much fanfare and acclaim recently; a book which looks at the lives of five notable women centred around a specific Bloomsbury location in London which housed them at points in the early part of the early 20th century, it promises much – and, I’m delighted to say, it most definitely delivers!

Published by Faber and Faber in a beautiful hardback edition with striking cover design and an intriguing half-dustwrapper, “Square Haunting” focuses on five women: H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and, of course, Virginia Woolf. At least three of the names should be well-known to most readers, but all are inspiring women in their own right; and so I was very keen to see what insights Wade would bring to their lives.

The square in question is Mecklenburgh Square in the Bloomsbury area of London; constructed in the early 1800s on land belonging to the Foundlings Hospital, by the time of the early 20th century it had enough of a reputation to be considered a little outré when young women moved into bedsits there. Wade gives some background to the location, before telling the story of the five protagonists and their time living in the Square. The chapters run chronologically from H.D. to Woolf, and each section is absolutely fascinating.

H.D., imagist poet and novelist, lived in Mecklenburgh Square during the First World War, and the events of her life during this time informed many of her later fictions. The picture painted is of a bohemian world peopled by artists and poets (Pound is much in evidence), and H.D. herself wrestles with many demons, including a troubled marriage to Richard Aldington and all manner of complex relationships.

The next resident is Dorothy L. Sayers, who actually ended up in the same building as had housed H.D.. Sayers was on the cusp of making her name as a detective novelist (so it’s no surprise that Harriet Vane, Lord Peter Wimsey’s love interest, also has a flat in the Square). Sayers herself would go through all manner of life-changing events here before moving on, and this section of the book really brought her to life for me.

Following Sayers and H.D., who lived in the Square during their younger years, is Jane Harrison; a notable and inspirational classicist (who was friend of the Woolfs), she lived in Mecklenburgh during her last years, alongside her loyal companion Hope Mirrlees. Harrison had a late flowering of independence, abandoning her academic career at Cambridge and fleeing to London to start a new and final chapter of her life. Proof, if it was needed, that you should never write off an older woman.

“Harrison considered ‘freedom to know’ to be the ‘birthright of every human being’; she was furious when it was implied that any realm of knowledge should be considered unwomanly.”

Eileen Power was a name new to me, which is to my shame. A pioneering economic historian and broadcaster, as well as a staunch pacifist, she was strongly connected with the LSE and tragically died far too young.

“For Eileen Power, the greatest horror of war lay in its negation of personal bonds: its infringement on private freedoms and its disdain for the human values of empathy and tolerance.”

Last, but of course not least, is Virginia Woolf. Woolf spent part of the last years of her life in Mecklenburgh Square, alternating London with Monk’s House in Rodmell; and she was witness to many of the effects of the war bombings on London. Woolf loved London; walking through its streets while thinking and composing in her head was one of the joys of her life, and it’s hard not to see the destruction of parts of the city as having had a detrimental effect on her often fragile mental state.

The story of any of these women would be quite absorbing enough on its own; however, set against the backdrop of the Bloomsbury Square and the changes taking place in the world and, more specifically, in women’s lives, it becomes completely engrossing. It was fascinating discovering the links between them, a result of Wade’s remarkable skill in teasing out connections between the five women which weren’t obvious before. In particular, one very tangible link between H.D. and Sayers would have devastating consequences for the latter. A little disingenuously Wade claims that she’s not writing about the whole of each woman’s life; instead she is simply focusing on the part of that life which touches the Square. However, she does give a biographical outline for each woman which I for one very much appreciated. Wade’s insights were remarkable; in the stories of five inspirational characters she finds resonances: the conflicts with male authority, the frustration at trying to make your voice heard in a male world, the barriers in academia which stopped women achieving. From H.D. to Woolf, all of the women had to fight to gain a ‘room of one’s own’ (often in the Square) which would give them the freedom to work. Current generations of women who take the ability to work and achieve for granted owe our sisterly forebears a huge debt. The book brims with riches and I took so much away from it; for example, just how important Bloomsbury was in bringing Russian Literature to the English-speaking world!

“(Power) lamented the widespread assumption that ‘the ideal wife should to endeavour to model herself upon a judicious mixture of a cow, a muffler, a shadow, a mirror. A lump of plasticine, a doormat and a vacuum, and algebraically indicated by a negative.’”

The main bulk of the narrative is bookended with the history of the Square itself and in her afterword, Wade relates the final fate of each woman. Her take on Woolf is a particularly fascinating one; Woolf’s search for independence is a touchstone throughout the narrative, and although Wade is not oblivious to Woolf’s faults of classism, she offers a nuanced interpretation, exploring Woolf’s growing awareness of her privilege and the hypocrisy of relying on the labour of other women to enable her to do her work. Towards the end of Woolf’s life she was making efforts to integrate in the community around her in Rodmell, a setting which informed her final novel “Between the Acts”. Wade also tells the story of Woolf’s last planned project, a kind of democratic history of culture, which was never completed owing to Woolf’s untimely death – which is another tragedy.

The amount of research which has gone into “Square Haunting” is obviously phenomenal (and is reflected in the detailed notes at the back of the book). However, Wade wears her erudition lightly, never letting this overwhelm her narrative, and the book is eminently readable and never less than completely absorbing. “Square Haunting” is simply an exceptional work of scholarship and a stunning book, a real triumph and a joy to read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is never happier than when ambling around Bloomsbury streets.

Francesca Wade, Square Haunting (Faber and Faber, 2020). ISBN 9780571330652,  422pp, hardback.

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