Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between The Wars tells the story of five important women during a time when they lived on the same street in Bloomsbury, London. They didn’t necessarily know each other, nor did they all live on Mecklenburgh Square during the same time. However, their lives, struggles and the street they lived on bind them together. This is the foundation that Francesca Wade builds on in her debut book about Hilda Doolitle (H.D.), Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf.
It took me almost two months to finish Square Haunting. Partly because it’s dense, academic reading and partly because I wanted to savor it. I loved reading this book and I learned so much, such as that H.D. was an American. How could I have not known that?
Francesca Wade took years to research and write this book. Her scholarly work shows through in the five sections devoted to the lives and scholarly pursuits of each woman.
“I like this London life in early summer – the street sauntering & square haunting.” Virginia Woolf, diary entry April 20, 1925
All five women were born during the Victorian era. An era when women had few options and weren’t allowed to think for themselves. The way the men in their lives treated them left me drained. All five of these ladies had to unlearn the social norms of Victorian society so they could flourish in their professions.
Even within the home, women were deterred from living a life of their choosing. To borrow Virginia Woolf’s famous words, a woman did not have a room of her own. For example, Francesca Wade highlights the difference between the study and the drawing room. A study was for a man. A woman was not allowed in the study, at least not without the man’s permission. The drawing room is a room reserved for the woman, but it is not her private room. Anyone can enter at any time, especially visitors. This resonated deeply with me; long after I finished reading the last page I am still thinking about the difference between these two rooms.
“The drawing room, Harrison wrote, was designated the wife’s territory, yet remained a public space, as ‘the room into which “visitors are shown” – a room in which you can’t possibly settle down to think, because anyone may come in at any moment.’ The husband’s study, by contrast, was ‘a place inviolate, guarded by immemorial taboos’, where the man of the house ‘thinks, and learns, and knows’; there were, Harrison noted, ‘rarely two chairs’ in the room.”
If you know even a little about Virginia Woolf, then you know how her life ends and Square Haunting does not gloss over it. World War II brought a great depression over her spirit. With airplane bombers flying over her house, and the bombings of London and the English countryside, it appeared to Woolf that there was no end in sight. After writing farewell notes for her husband and her sister, she walked into a river and drowned herself. Do you know what I wish? I wish I could invent a Time Machine and travel back in time to tell Woolf to hang on for just a few more years. That Churchill, and the Allies, would bring the war to a victorious end. I wish I could have told Woolf that not only would we win the war, but that future generations would come to admire, study and seek inspiration from the stand that Britain would make against Nazi Germany.
The current global pandemic is probably the worst event my generation has experienced. I must remind myself that for pre-Baby Boomers, life was generally awful: famine, the flu pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the two World Wars… I could go on. Yet, these five ladies persevered through hardships and fought to make a living from their desired professions.
The women that dominate the pages of Square Haunting left me feeling inspired to continue working on my book and writing projects.
I’m glad I spent two months with these ladies. I thought about them as I went about my day. I thought about Sayers writing her detective fiction as I plotted my own fiction. I thought about Woolf worrying about the war as I pondered about our own economic and political troubles. And when I finished the book, even though I had tears streaming down my face, I felt a relief wash over me. Relieved that I honored them by reading about their lives and keeping their memories alive, but I also felt sad turning the last page because I was saying goodbye to my five ladies (as I privately began to call them).
Have you read Square Haunting or any of the published works of these five women?