Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade

May 16, 2020 at 7:49 pm (Anglophilia, books)

  From the last section of Square Haunting:

In a sketch titled “London in War,” [Virginia Woolf] commented on the eeriness and disorientation of living in the city under siege: “Everybody is feeling the same thing: therefore no one is feeling anything in particular. The individual is merged in the mob.”

Now, walking the streets was a continual danger, maintaining the house a draining responsibility, the city ruled by an atmosphere of silence and suspicion. London, she wrote, “has become merely a congeries of houses lived in by people who work. There is no society, no luxury no splendour no gadding & flitting. All is serious & concentrated. It is as if the song had stopped—the melody, the necessary the voluntary. Odd if this should be the end of town life.”
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Woolf wrote movingly in her diary of the surreal quality of the blacked-out city, which seemed “a reversion to the middle ages with all the space & the silence of the country set in this forest of black houses”: “Nature prevails. I suppose badgers & foxes wd come back if this went on, & owls & nightingales…”

And nowadays, Kashmiri goats, too…

Anyway, I wanted to begin this review by quoting the above passages (and sharing that video) because I thought they seemed strangely relevant to the present moment.
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What a wonderful book this is! A delight for both the sense and the intellect, Square Haunting tells the story of five women as they struggle to find their place in the realms of academia, publishing, and public life in general. This endeavor has as its chief backdrop the tumultuous era between the two world wars. The author’s delineation of this fraught period is one of the book’s great strengths.

Here are the five women. in the order in which their stories are told:

Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D., 1886-1961, poet and novelist

Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, 1893-1957; she was also scholar of religion and French and Italian literature. She wanted very much to be known for these latter accomplishments, especially her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Jane Ellen Harrison, linguist and classicist, 1850-1928

Historian Eileen Power, 1889-1940

 

Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941. This my favorite image of her.

At one time or another, each of these women lived in Mecklenburgh Square, an area of London located within the Bloomsbury District in London’s West End. It is this happenstance that caused Francesca Wade to group them together in this  book. Although there was little, if any, interaction among them, they faced many of the same challenges, both in their professional and personal lives.

Also, they all produced trenchant and insightful prose.. Here is H.D. upon entering her war-damaged apartment:

“We came home and simply waded through glass,” she recalled, “while wind from now unshuttered windows made the house a barn, an unprotected dug-out. What does that sort of shock do to the mind, the imagination—not solely of myself, but of an epoch?”

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Wade gives us this description of Dorothy L. Sayers’s experience at Oxford:

Sayers’s contemporaries remembered tepid water, unpleasant food, and a general atmosphere of restriction, since their academic and social behavior was under constant scrutiny from opponents eager to cite the slightest misdemeanor as ammunition to demand a revocation of women’s place at Oxford. A female student recalled a don who began his classes “Gentlemen—and others who attend my lectures,” and another who insisted that the women sit behind him so he didn’t have to see them as he declaimed. Articles in the press constantly feigned concern that women were overworking, and that their minds and constitutions were not geared to such intensive toil.

This was the battle – or, one of the battles – Sayers was fighting when she wrote Gaudy Night, the culminating novel in the Wimsey/Vane series. These are the thoughts entertained by Harriet Vane, as she approaches the precincts of Shrewsbury College, Oxford, her alma mater:

They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University;… a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.

Indeed, so.

Meanwhile, of course, she’s trying to reconcile her life as a writer and scholar with her life as a possible wife – and to a Lord, no less:

(I recommend Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the series.)

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Prior to reading this book, I had never heard of Jane Ellen Harrison. She is a person well worth getting to know – a path breaker, a brilliant academician, and a fearless crusader for the right of women to nourish their legitimate intellectual hunger.

In her essay “Scientiae Sacra Fames,” Harrison wrote of the “delight of learning for learning’s sake a ‘dead’ language for sheer love of the beauty of its words and the delicacy of its syntactical relations…the rapture of reconstructing for the first time in imagination a bit of the historical past.” Women’s education had so long been constructed around its practical application to the life of a wife and mother that choosing a subject for pure stimulation felt like an act of delicious daring. Harrison considered “freedom to know” to be the “birthright of every human being”; she was furious when it was implied that any realm of knowledge should be considered “unwomanly.”

Among here many accomplishments, Jane Harrison mastered the Russian language and encouraged the translation and appreciation of Russian literature. This of course immediately endeared her to this Russophile – Спасибо вам большое, Jane Harrison! (Thank you so much, or literally, ‘a big thanks to you’).
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As with Jane Ellen Harrison, so with Eileen Power. Like Harrison, Power made her contributions to historical scholarship in the context of academia, in this case, Girton College, Cambridge. Power’s specialty was the Middle Ages, especially the lives of ordinary people during that era.

Eileen Power’s life is the story of her attempt to forge a new image for a woman intellectual, and create a way of living for which there was little precedent: not as the stereotype of a dowdy bluestocking, but as a professional who could entertain an international reputation while also enjoying fashion and frivolity, whose public status was defined not by her family but by her work.

Medieval People, an early work by Power, is available as a Kindle e-reader. I’ve only looked at the first few pages but it appears to be eminently readable.
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Perhaps mindful that so much has already been written about Virginia Woolf, Wade concentrates most particularly on her experience of the early days of World War Two, both in her and Leonard’s London flat and at Monk’s House, their home in the countryside. I’ve quoted some of that material at the beginning of this post. It comes from her journals, letters, and various writings; it is vivid and compelling. And I was pleasantly surprised by it, as I’ve never been able to get through any of her novels. I did, however, read A Room of One’s Own. Wikipedia says of that work:

An important feminist text, the essay is noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women’s writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.

Woolf was bitter about the effort and expense involved in sending her brothers to boarding school and then to Cambridge, while she and her sister Vanessa received virtually no formal education. (Vanessa became a painter of great distinction. She was married to the at critic Clive Bell. One of their sons was  the writer and art critic Quentin Bell; his son is Julian Bell, artist and writer and author of the biography of Vincent Van Gogh that I recently read and greatly enjoyed.)

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A poignant final note about Virginia Woolf and Eileen Power. It is fairly well known that Virginia Woolf battled what was probably bipolar illness and other conditions causing emotional anguish and mental instability for much of her adult life. She committed suicide in 1941, leaving this note for husband:

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

She was 59 years old.
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As for Eileen Power, she married Michael Postan, a Russian emigre who was both her colleague and her student. She was 37; he was ten years younger. They were deeply in love but their time together was cut tragically short by her untimely death. Her last letter to him is eerily reminiscent of Vieginia Woolf’s final missive to Leonard:

“Thank you my own darling…for making me as happy as a human being can be made and if I never see you again remember that no one could love you more.”

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Please know that there is so much more in this book than what I have herein covered. Give yourself a rare treat and read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Roberta Rood said,

    Thanks so much, Christophe. I haven’t seen this.

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