In 1927 Virginia Woolf published “Street Haunting.’’ It’s a long essay that explores the imaginative act of living the lives of other people. Walking among London’s “islands of light, and its long groves of darkness” allowed Woolf the possibility to feel that “one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.” By glimpsing into the rooms of others, at their wallpaper, at the china on their shelves, at the papers on their desks, Woolf was able to begin to shed the skin of her own personhood and flirt with the idea of being someone else.
All biography is, to some extent, involved in the same exercise. The biographer delves into a figure — their texts (published or unpublished), documents, photographs, diaries, remembrances, rumors, events — in order to imagine themselves into that person. A biography of a place aims to draw connections between the traces of the lives which have lived there: to suggest that somehow that place in those times nurtured a different feeling in its inhabitants than they would have harbored elsewhere.
Of all of Bloomsbury’s squares, Mecklenburgh was, until now perhaps, the least remarkable. Russell Square has T. S. Eliot and the British Museum, Gordon has UCL, and Bedford retains its regency grandeur. If you were to walk around Bloomsbury now, you would be forgiven for not recognizing Mecklenburgh as a square at all; Coram’s Fields push its leaves against its back, and Goodenough College takes up two of its sides. Only one side retains a Georgian terrace through which most of Bloomsbury is recognizable.
In Square Haunting, Francesca Wade looks at the lives of five women living in Mecklenburgh Square: the modernist poet H. D.; the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers; the classicist and translator Jane Ellen Harrison; the socialist economic historian Eileen Powers; and the novelist and publisher Virginia Woolf. Wade argues that the time spent in Mecklenburgh Square allowed the five writers to find, in Woolf’s famous words, “a room of one’s own”: an independent space within which to work and socialize beyond the confining society of early twentieth-century Britain.
For all the women Wade writes about, the mind is the means by which to push boundaries. Woolf writes that “in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female … [t]he normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually cooperating.” Wade points out that this sentiment was shared by the other tenants of Mecklenburgh Square. She discusses H. D. writing that the brain is “that great and sole true Androgyne.” Likewise, in a study, Jane Ellen Harrison writes on Ancient Greek myth — that the worshipers of Orpheus made the image of their god neither male nor female, “but a thing bisexed, immaculate, winged.” The book generally teases out links between the characters that, in many cases, were not likely aware of themselves; none of them lived in the square simultaneously.
Nevertheless, the writings of the five women do constitute, for Wade, a “tradition.” This tradition was founded in the way the Mecklenburgh Square women reset “the boundaries of history.” One of the most important resetters of those boundaries was the radical economist Eileen Power. She managed to break away from the generally held view that all the Bloomsbury groups were disinterested in the class struggles facing Europe.
Power is withdrawn from the self-indulgent aesthetic movements, such as the imagists with which H. D. was involved, and instead interested herself in political action that had the potentiality to liberate women and the working-classes. Together with her future partner, the historian Michael Postan, Power formed a group of democratic socialists with sympathy for the disenfranchised, sharing drinks in the evenings and hosting events at Power’s place of work, the London School of Economics, during the day.
The links between the women are sometimes slack. Does it mean anything, for instance, that two of Dorothy L. Sayers’ contemporaries at Somerville College, Oxford were asked why they were leaving the neighborhood of Eileen Power? And is a “tradition” established because Power and Jane Harrison both supported the Union of Democratic Control whilst studying, at separate times, at Cambridge University? Or that H. D. and Sayers lived in the same apartment one after the other? I suppose it does in many ways. It shows a milieu within which academics and writers were living and working and a set of shared ideals. It also demonstrates how tightly knit these groups were.
Any reader interested in the parties and affairs will not be disappointed, but it was Mecklenburgh’s offering of alone time that seems so crucial. The square becomes an Oxbridge quad, a place to work alone or socialize with like-minded people. Famous male writers move in and out of the narrative like passing shadows, occasionally reappearing before dissolving: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, H. G. Wells. But the pleasure of Square Haunting sits in its sympathetic portrayal of five writers each seeking a new form of life, either away from one thing or towards another. Wade seems to have memorized each available word from each of the women and succeeds in offering a new glimpse into Bloomsbury life, already a much written on location in the British literary mythos.
By Francesca Wade
Tim Duggan Books
Published April 7, 2020