Square Haunting tells the story of five important British women from the early 20th century, most of whom (with the exception of Virginia Woolf) are sadly neglected in this day and age. The book’s short, lively sketches of these women are a delight to read, but just as important is the hope that it’ll revive interest in their important creative and scholarly contributions.
What united the five women was their residency in the same neighbourhood – London’s infamous Bloomsbury, famed for its ‘bohemian’ and avant-garde residents — around the same period of time in the early 20th century. Two of them (H.D. and Dorothy L. Sayers) in fact rented the exact same room in near succession. The others all happened to spend a portion of their lives living somewhere nearby.
While the book’s point of departure is this nebulous geographic affinity, author Francesca Wade points out the five women shared a more important, and less tangible, trait in common. They were all pioneering women struggling to assert independence and achieve recognition for their work at a time when British society was struggling with the shackles of Victorian era misogyny. The patriarchal bent of the academy, as well as the literary world, proved a powerful barrier they women struggled against, in varying ways and with varying degrees of success. The inclusion of Virginia Woolf – by far the best known of the five – is an appropriate one, for her landmark feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own” aptly summarizes the struggle they all shared. (Woolf makes mention of another of the book’s subjects, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, in her essay.)
little blue robot by vinsky2002 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
H.D. circa 1925, photographed by Man Ray (Public Domain / Wikipedia)
The book’s first subject, poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), is still known in literary circles. She is often recognized as one of the first and greatest of the Imagist poets (although she soon outgrew the movement and its misogynistic, self-promoting leading men), and her feminist autobiographical novels experienced a well-deserved resurgence in the later part of the 20th century, as part of the broader reclamation and celebration of important queer and women writers.
Her lesbian relationship with the writer Bryher (pen name of Annie Winifred Ellerman) is the partnership for which she is best known, but the sketch offered in Square Haunting focuses on an earlier phase of her life. It explores her relationships with other male writers – Richard Aldington, John Cournos, Cecil Grey, D.H. Lawrence — during the time she lived in Mecklenburgh Square (1916-1918) and shines a revealing light on the dastardly ways and astonishing lengths to which jealous men would go to put their lives and work ahead of those of their female partners.
H.D.’s painful relationships with angry, domineering and jealous men is the main topic of this sketch; during this period she struggled against daunting odds to produce the work which would eventually outshine the scribblings of the men in her life. H.D.’s eventual relationship with Bryher proved to be the one which best fulfilled her relationship aspirations (which like many of her time were a complex blend of the personal and the political) and also provided her the freedom and support (both financial and emotional) with which to produce some of her greatest work.
Dorothy Leigh Sayers (13 June 1893 – 17 December 1957 (Fair use / Wikipedia)
Dorothy L. Sayers was another aspiring writer, whose work took an unexpected turn and led her to become one of the country’s earliest and finest detective novelists. When she moved to Bloomsbury it was with aspirations to produce poetry or high literature, but her quest to remain financially independent in a deeply patriarchal society led her to the more popular detective genre. Even so, she brought to the genre an unself-conscious dignity which understood the genre as something more than just pulp entertainment or a way to make money. The most popular detective stories, she observed, were “the nearest modern approach to a national folk-lore.” Wade quotes from an unpublished essay Sayers wrote, in response to criticism of the popular genre:
“This ‘undemocratic contempt’, writes Sayers with customary animation, masks the fact that this literature holds in the contemporary imagination the position once occupied by the myths and legends of Arthur and Robin Hood, or the heroic epics of Scandinavia and ancient Greece: the detective, she argued, ‘is really the last of the great heroes who have stood up for civilisation against disorder and invasion.'”
Sayers’ personal life was also plagued by narcissistic men, and reveals the labyrinthine, convoluted romantic entanglements so characteristic of Bloomsbury and the artistic-literary set of that period. John Cournos, a poet who also lived in Mecklenburgh Square and was a friend of H.D.’s, was in love with and briefly engaged to an American heiress who called herself Arabella Yorke. H.D.’s husband, Richard Aldington, began an affair with Yorke. Cournos was bereft when he learned of this, but he was also deeply in love with H.D.; an unrequited attraction.
Somehow, Cournos and Sayers met (they lived in the same building) and began an affair, but Cournos’ unrequited attraction for H.D. left him cruel and self-centred in his relationship with Sayers (which was eventually broken off, although they retained a strange off-and-on friendship for the rest of their lives). Sayers’ subsequent relationships were also unhappy ones (she had a child with a man who hid the fact of his other wife and child and eventually ran off on all of them; and another man who suffered from wartime trauma and came to resent Sayers’ success).
Yet it was her struggle to sort through the complicated gender politics of her era, and the struggle faced by women seeking both financial independence as well as egalitarian relationships, which made her novels so rich, as she wrote these dilemmas into her female protagonists’ lives. The truly great detective stories, then as now, don’t just challenge our intellectual capacity to solve a mystery; they also convey something of the complicated social truths of the time and place in which they are set.
Portrait of Jane Ellen Harrison by Theo van Rysselberghe (Public Domain / Wikipedia)
Jane Ellen Harrison was a classicist who these days would be considered a celebrity academic. She had the flair for it – when the clannish men’s club of classical scholarship tried to block her advancement in the field, she out-manoeuvred them and almost single-handedly popularized the discipline. She toured the country, giving lectures which were heavily dramatized to the point of the theatrical, to workers’ associations and the general public.
When she eventually carved out enough of a reputation to achieve a secure academic position (in her late 40s), the scholarship she finally had the space to produce up-ended the field of classical studies. She pioneered the study of matriarchal society and religions, revealing the animistic and female-centred roots underlying the more familiar mythologies of the Greco-Roman world. She was one of, if not the, earliest classical scholar to “reread history through the lens of gender and power.” Her work fascinated and inspired not only an array of younger scholars (she was a profound influence on James Frazier, whose famous work The Golden Bough built on her theories) but also writers and poets, from H.D. to T.S. Eliot.
Those who, like Harrison, immerse themselves in the public life of their country always risk a shorter legacy than the men who lock themselves away in ivory towers, seeking to produce inaccessible tomes designed to last for posterity. Indeed, Harrison’s reputation risks being forgotten, although it’s frequently salvaged by those who, like Wade, bring her back into public view. Harrison was the subject of another fascinating experiment in biographical writing earlier this century, and by another classicist, no less: Mary Beard published the intriguing study The Invention of Jane Harrison in 2002.
The chapters on H.D. and Sayers offer examples of young women struggling to forge an independent future for themselves; Wade’s sketch of Harrison provides the opposite, for Harrison only moved to Mecklenburgh Street at the very end of her life, in 1926 when she was 76 years old. Wade’s choice of subject in this case offers a woman in her later years struggling to retain a profound independence of thought and action. She left her academic position at Cambridge at the age of 72, burned all her papers, and even largely abandoned her life’s specialization – classical studies – to move to Paris and study Russian language and literature, engaging with the vibrant community of ex-pat Russians who were there as refugees and exiles from the Revolution.
There’s a lesson for us yet today, Wade reveals, in learning about “Harrison’s ever-eager curiosity and her regular interrogation of herself as well as of others, always alert to the possibility of doing things differently. Jane Harrison was so fervently committed to her freedom that she was willing to make significant changes and sacrifices, even in her 70s, in order to create the best conditions for her work. Her story shows that the question of ‘how to live’ is not restricted to a single answer; when one environment ceased to provide what she needed, Harrison did not hesitate to re-examine her situation.”
Harrison’s deepest and most cryptic relationship was with Hope Mirrlees, a female poet and novelist who was 37 years younger than her, and with whom she lived for many years (they resided together on Mecklenburgh Street when she died). The tantalizing evidence of Harrison’s personal and romantic life are mostly lost, burned along with the rest of her correspondence when she left Cambridge and her former life behind at the age of 72, and obscured by Mirrlees’ reticence to share. (Mirrlees struggled for years to produce a biography of Harrison, and eventually abandoned the project after she quit Bloomsbury and discovered Catholicism.)
Eileen Power in the 1930s (No restrictions / Wikipedia)
Eileen Power was an economic historian and one of the pioneering academics of the London School of Economics. She conducted early and groundbreaking work in historical materialism and economic history – especially that of women – and helped train an array of male scholars (including her future husband Munia Postan) whose work would be remembered more prominently than her own. She was deeply involved in progressive, anti-fascist and socialist politics, and also played a foundational role in popularizing history through her broadcasting work with the fledgling BBC. Her work emphasized the significance and role of ‘ordinary’ people in history, and she fought voraciously against the trends of a normative history which still focused disproportionately on ‘great men.’
She lived at Mecklenburgh Square for 12 years, until her death there in 1940, and her prolonged residency offers a sketch of a brilliant middle-aged woman at the height of her professional success. She died of a heart attack at the terribly young age of 50.
Virginia Woolf is the fifth woman in Wade’s book. She needs no introduction, and remains the best known of the five. Yet her inclusion is fitting, and not only because her writing took such direct aim at the pervasive sexism faced by all five. Woolf and her husband lived in Mecklenburgh Square only briefly during the Second World War, and their residency there came to an abrupt end when the building was partially destroyed by German bombs during the Blitz. (The Woolfs were out of town at the time.) It proved to be the end not just of a building, but of an era.
Some reviewers have criticized Wade’s book as offering only a flimsy pretext for bringing the five women together; I would strongly disagree. The book coheres remarkably well. The five women’s lives overlapped in fascinating ways, and while it’s not exactly a group biography – the five operated in distinctly different professional and social spheres for most of their lives – they were familiar enough with each other that the sometimes peripheral intersection of their networks offers a fascinating glimpse into the interwoven nature of intellectual and creative life in that period.
But more importantly, it offers a look at the author’s theme – the women’s struggle for independence, against misogynist partners and patriarchal colleagues – from the vantage of five very different women at different stages in their lives, from young (H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers) to middle-aged (Power and Woolf) to elderly (Jane Ellen Harrison). In doing so, it provides a cleverly holistic look at women’s lives and the varied ways in which their struggles against patriarchy took form at different stages of their lives and careers.
The women’s relationships with men offer an interesting contrast. Both H.D. and Sayers struggled through painful and destructive relationships with narcissistic, self-centred men. Far from an unlucky pattern, one needs to understand it as more of a societal norm. Those men who were not actively jealous and domineering — seeking to destroy the women in their lives rather than risk those women outshining them – still suffered from an uncritical absorption of patriarchal social norms which proved equally destructive. Fortunately both women surmounted the difficulties posed by men in their lives, but not without a great deal of pain and misery.
Power and Woolf provide examples of a different relation between partners of the opposite sex. Their marriages were entered into very cautiously, negotiated with tremendous care to ensure they were equitable ones, something which would have been considered quite experimental at the time. Power, after some dead-end relationships with self-centred men in her youth, eventually wound up marrying one of her former students who was more than a decade her junior. Their shared research passions provided the basis for a marriage in which both of them worked as equals.
Woolf, too, ensured she married a partner with complementary interests (books, poetry, politics) and their shared work on the Hogarth Press became an important linchpin for their relationship. Virginia was also very up front about her expectations and boundaries within the marriage, while acknowledging it as a living thing they would need to negotiate as time went on.
H.D., Harrison, and Woolf also all found fulfilling emotional and sexual relationships with women, either in addition to or in lieu of relationships with men. This, like their struggles for personal independence and professional success, would presage an important aspect of women’s broader struggle against patriarchy.
Square Haunting is an immensely pleasurable, yet wisely insightful book, carried both by the author’s smart treatment of her theme as well as her engaging narrative style. Whether one chooses to read it for the delightful sketches of the five fascinating women who are its subjects, or whether one is more interested in the broader theme of understanding how misogyny and patriarchy constricted intellectual and public life in the period, it’s a superb achievement, which will hopefully generate renewed interest in all five of these women and their remarkable lives and accomplishments.
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