IES PhD student Natalia Fantetti talks to author Francesca Wade about her new book, Square Haunting.
To research the work of women is to realise just how often their histories have been obscured, consigned to the footnotes, or just plainly left out. With my own research on women’s contributions to the medieval manuscript trade in the first half of the twentieth century, this brick wall has presented itself time and again. It soon becomes apparent that it is less a case of consulting the standard literature and more a recovery operation from the scraps of history. In Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, the life and work of five women intellectuals connected with Mecklenburgh Square between the wars (H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf) are brought to light.
What made you decide to write this book and to focus on these five women in particular?
The book really began with a coincidence — when I discovered that during the interwar years, a number of fascinating women writers had all lived in the very same square in London. I began to wonder what had brought them all to Mecklenburgh Square, and what they might have been looking for as they set up home and pursued careers there — and as I researched, I came to realise that the square itself might work as a metaphor for everything Virginia Woolf urges women writers to pursue in A Room of One’s Own: a domestic set-up which allows intellectual work, and a sense of personal freedom, to flourish. Each of my five subjects came to the square at a moment of transition in their lives both public and private, and each sought to redefine themselves there, through the books they wrote, their relationships, and the way they arranged their home.
Whilst these women were all relatively well known during their lifetimes, in the intervening years they have received varying levels of critical, cultural and academic attention. How does the experience of writing about someone like Virginia Woolf, who has reached the status of literary icon, compare to someone like Eileen Power, who nowadays might not be as well known outside of academic circles?
In writing about these women I faced huge disparities in the way their legacies have been preserved. Eileen Power’s sisters burned most of her personal papers after her early death; Jane Harrison destroyed a lot of material herself when she left Cambridge in 1922 for a new life in Paris; Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, kept a diary throughout her life, which is now published and available to examine alongside comprehensive collections of her letters. Much of Eileen Power’s work is intangible today — her radio broadcasts of world history lessons, delivered to children throughout the 1930s to instil a crucial sense of ‘world citizenship’, are lost, while much of her most important work took the form of seminars and discussions with fellow socialists, internationalists and radicals, held at the London School of Economics or around her kitchen table. But Woolf herself was very influenced by Power’s work; while she was working on her final project, a history of English literature told through the character of ‘Anonymous’, she turned back to Power’s books about the everyday lives of ordinary medieval people, an example of exactly the sort of history Woolf wanted more of. It’s tantalising to think of the material we’ve lost, but I hope that setting these figures alongside each other will show each in new lights.
Whether they were working as academics, writers, publishers or in the book trade more widely, the 1920s and 1930s saw a lot of successes for working women. Do you think that there is something about that particular cultural moment that facilitated those successes and why?
The women in my book — mostly middle-class, and members of the first generations of women to enter university and achieve the vote — emerged into adulthood at a moment when they could contemplate careers and living arrangements which wouldn’t have felt possible to their mothers. Jane Harrison, the oldest of my five (born in 1850), was a trailblazer in this regard — despite persistent setbacks she carved out a reputation for herself as one of the most dynamic scholars of her day, largely by lecturing and teaching outside the academy, since she was constantly rejected from academic jobs. Even by the time Eileen Power, a generation later, was a renowned professor at LSE, she knew she was consistently paid less than her male colleagues: although huge steps had been made for working women, there was — and remains — a long way to go.
The women in the book can perhaps all be said to struggle with proving that ‘women have both hearts and minds’ in various ways. In your opinion, is this a problem that still persists today, and is there anything we can learn from the way in which your five subjects handled it?
This is a quote from Dorothy L. Sayers’s brilliant detective novel Gaudy Night, which dramatises the question Sayers was asking herself throughout her time in Mecklenburgh Square, in her twenties: whether it is possible for an ambitious woman, determined to pursue a career, to balance intellectual and emotional life; to commit fully to her work and also to maintain a fulfilling family life. It’s a question all my subjects grappled with: Jane Harrison was convinced that marriage and motherhood would have destroyed her hopes of a life dedicated to ‘friendship and learning’, while Virginia Woolf wrote sternly to her husband before they were married that she refused to look on marriage as a profession. Only two of my subjects had children, both in unusual and unhappy — and eerily similar — circumstances. It’s certainly a question still being asked today — and while there are no answers, there’s something very fortifying in examining the ways women have approached these dilemmas through time.
Were there any anecdotes or facts about the book’s subjects that you discovered during research that you particularly liked? Were there any stories you had to cut for clarity/word count that you wish you could have included?
There were many! I wanted to keep my narrative focused on the years the women spent in Mecklenburgh Square itself, so couldn’t go too deeply into Jane Harrison’s early years trailing archaeologists on their digs in Europe and the Middle East (legend has it she smoked a pipe on the steps of the Parthenon), or Dorothy L. Sayers’s presidency of the Detection Club, a secret society for writers of crime fiction with an arcane initiation ceremony, or H. D.’s later fascination with the occult, and her life with Bryher, which began shortly after she left the square. There were also several other women who lived in the square whose stories I could have included in the book – — I write about one of them, Nancy Morris, here — but I decided to focus on writers, as the question of how women’s lives have been written through history is something that binds all five of my subjects together: in their life and their work, all were looking to subvert and extend the traditional limits within which women’s lives have been defined.
By focusing on such a specific area, many of the people mentioned over the course of the book crossed paths and so pop up fairly often. How did you keep track of the various connections between the players in the action?
Many of the connections were totally unexpected — not only did H. D. and Dorothy L. Sayers live in the very same room, a few years apart, but they both had relationships with the same man, John Cournos, who wrote incredibly insulting novels dramatising his perceived rejection by each of them! In other cases, they had mutual friends or colleagues, or even met each other — Virginia Woolf mentions Jane Harrison in A Room of One’s Own as an example of pioneering scholarship, and she attended parties at Eileen Power’s house. And as I researched, more intangible connections arose that I wouldn’t have imagined if I’d been looking at each woman individually: thinking about Power’s work with the League of Nations threw new light on Woolf’s pacifist essay Three Guineas, and learning about Harrison’s theories on the matriarchal origins of Greek religion gave new depth to my understanding of H. D.’s poetry taking its voice from mythological heroines. So these connections were integral to the project all along, and I hope they give it its shape and texture.
H.D. and Virginia Woolf took to editing and publishing respectively, as well as writing, thus also helping behind the scenes to shape the literary output of the period. How important do you think that this was in retaining their autonomy, both as women and as writers?
It was extremely important for them both, I think. H. D. was assistant editor at the Egoist during this period — an influential avant-garde magazine that provided H. D. with a sense of community, as well as a place to try out her own ideas. For Woolf, setting up the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard was crucial in giving her the confidence to experiment with form and language — she wrote that not having to shape her work to the tastes of an external editor left her ‘the only woman in England free to write what I like’.
So much has been said in criticism and scholarship about “Bloomsbury” that it at times seems more like an idea than an actual place. Your approach puts the actual geography and social connections between people back into play. Do you think we have to reframe how we think about geographical/proximity-based networks?
Bloomsbury is such a fascinating place to write about because there’s so much more to the area than the impression we tend to have of it today — of an exclusive enclave, populated by a wealthy elite. In the early years of the twentieth century, Bloomsbury was home to a huge variety of people — being close to the railway stations and universities, it had a very international population, while single people, especially women who wanted to strike out alone, were attracted by the affordable rooms in its boarding-houses, which sprang up when the area’s empty mansions were divided up into flats due to lack of interest from the rich families they were built for. I spent a lot of time researching the architectural history of the area, and reading novels and memoirs from its lesser-known residents; several of the people I write about wanted to escape the ‘Bloomsbury’ stereotype that was already emerging while they lived there. I wanted my book to be an alternative history of the area, and to move away from the idea that it was solely the preserve of the group who ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’ — to recover a radical history of literature, politics and feminism that has stayed behind closed doors.
Find Francesca’s book, Square Haunting online here. Featured image from faber.co.uk.