REVIEWED BY ELLIE MEAD
Francesca Wade (Faber: 2020)
Wade’s book takes its title from a 1925 diary entry, in which Virginia Woolf extols the pleasures of ‘street sauntering and square haunting’. In the 1930s five women flitted in and out of lodgings in London’sMecklenburgh Square.
These women were:
H. D. (Hilda Doolittle, AmericanModernist poet)
Jane Ellen Harrison (Classical scholar and linguist, once dubbed the cleverest woman in England)
Eileen Power (Economic historianand Medievalist)
Dorothy L. Sayers (creator of Lord Peter Wimsey and his crime solving sidekick, Harriet Vane)
Virginia Woolf (well we know all about her!)
These women were not all resident in Mecklenburgh Square at the same time, hence the additional sense of them ‘haunting’ the square. They took over rooms from each other and sometimes partners too. We hear as much about their romantic entanglements and their strivings for ‘modern’ unconventional relationships as their academic achievements.
What they did have in common was a fierce and determined drive towards independence and the desire for, in Woolf’s words, ‘a room of one’s own’ where they could write and study. They strove to evade the expectations of marriage and children in favour of a career. The nearby London School of Economics was in its infancy at this time. Founded in 1895 by Beatrice and Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw, it admitted both men and women from its inception, at a time when women were struggling to have their degrees recognised at Cambridge— although Oxford did so, women were not granted degreesat Cambridge until 1948!
I was fascinated to learn about the lives of these women, their thoughts, hopes, aspirations and not insignificant academic and literary achievements in a world where men very much still had the upper hand. In the final chapter Woolf’s descriptions of blitzed London in wartime struck a chord as having much in common with a London living under the shadow of Covid in 2020.
In fact, so inspired was I by their stories that I rang my local bookshop: ‘The Open Road’ at Stoke by Nayland to enquire about the availability of Eileen Power’s Medieval People and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Also, I almost felt the urge to commence learning Russian as did Jane Ellen Harrison in her seventies! These inspirational women gave me the sense that anything is possible if only one sets one’s mind to it.
Here we see how people can be inspired to find new reading via the authors who give our wonderful SBL talks. My friend, Ellie, is a new member of SBL and for her birthday I bought her a copy of Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, our speaker for July. I was so happy when she phoned to say how much she was enjoyingit. By the time I invited her to write this article, Ellie had passed Square Haunting to a friend. The best books always pass through many hands and lead to further happy discoveries.