Square Haunting

Francesca Wade

Square Haunting
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Square Haunting

Francesca Wade

‘I like this London life…the street-sauntering and square-haunting.’ - Virginia Woolf, diary, 1925

In London during the interwar years, five women’s lives intertwined around one address. Mecklenburgh Square, on the radical fringes of Bloomsbury, was home to activists, experimenters and revolutionaries; among them were the modernist poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. In an era when women’s freedoms were fast expanding, they each sought a space where they could live, love and - above all - work independently.

From the square, these trailblazing women pushed the boundaries of scholarship, literary form and social norms. Taking us into the emotional texture of their lives, Francesca Wade’s luminous group biography reveals five unforgettable characters who forged careers that would have been impossible without these rooms of their own.

Review

I love women’s history. I love group biographies. I love English social and cultural history in the period between the wars. And I love Bloomsbury, the place and its lore. So it’s no surprise then that I really love Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, which brilliantly combines all my adorations into one impressive, smart, and moving book. Wade investigates the allure of Mecklenburgh Square, on the outskirts of Bloomsbury, and why it drew five remarkable women to live on it at different times in the years between the First and Second World Wars.

With chapters devoted to poet H.D., novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, the classical scholar Jane Harrison, historian Eileen Power, and finally, Virginia Woolf, Wade doesn’t provide cradle to grave coverage, choosing instead to focus intensely on the productive years each woman spent on the square, in rooms of their own that enabled them to work, live and love radically.

Square Haunting is impeccably researched, but what I love most about it are the rich emotional echoes that Wade hears between these women’s lives, finding shared experiences, desires, and disappointments. What emerges is a portrait of independence and community, actual and imagined, of women existing outside and beyond societal expectations, and of the ways in which private lives inevitably evolve alongside public roles. It’s a beautiful and inspiring book.


Joanna Di Mattia works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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