Five bluestockings in one Bloomsbury square

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

18 January 2020

9:00 AM

The presiding genius of this original and erudite book is undoubtedly Virginia Woolf, whose essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ provided the rallying cry, whether consciously or not, for five remarkable women, all drawn at some point in their careers to Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square. There they found the freedom and independence they craved to explore new ways of living and loving and writing during the volatile interwar decades. All five were ‘blue-stockings’: the radical modernist American poet Hilda Doolittle, or ‘H.D.’; the crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers; the classicist and translator Jane Harrison; the economic historian Eileen Power; and Virginia Woolf herself, tactfully and strategically placed last, lest she overshadow her less celebrated companions.

There are many ways of threading together the subjects of a group biography, and the fortuitous alighting of these birds of passage in one obscure Bloomsbury square might at first glance seem tenuous. But, as Francesca Wade adroitly shows, the women are linked by much more than their occupation of various addresses around the square. Perched on the edge of Bloomsbury, within a stone’s throw of the British Museum Reading Room, London University’s spreading embrace and the West End’s babble of theatre and restaurants, Mecklenburgh Square acted as a magnet to those keen to break the mould and prepared to be radical, creative, even downright eccentric, in order to live as they liked. It offered them ‘a room of one’s own’ which — with an income of £500 a year — was the key to true independence of thought, according to Woolf’s groundbreaking essay.

Part of the square’s allure, and the source of its affordability, was Bloomsbury’s shady and transient reputation. Its gracious Georgian houses and airy squares were never entirely ‘respectable’, its boarding houses and brothels lending themselves to many a seamy scene in the stories of Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield and indeed Dorothy L. Sayers, who found it ripe territory for her crime novels. Wade bookends her account with the two world wars, opening with Doolittle’s arrival in a shared boarding house at No. 44 during zeppelin raids in 1916, and closing with the Woolfs being bombed out of No. 37 in October 1940.

For H.D., a protégée of Ezra Pound, eager to hone her modernist writer’s voice and leave a lasting mark on literary London, her sojourn at No. 44 was purgatorial. A disintegrating marriage to Richard Aldington, several unsatisfactory love affairs, the terror of further air raids and fear of creative failure all conspired to transform her flat there from a creative refuge to ‘four walls about to crush her’. Far happier was the experience of Sayers, an altogether more robust tenant of the same rooms a couple of years later. By 1920 the war was a recent memory; there were no longer munitions girls from the top floor clattering downstairs to their night shifts, or suffragettes scraping the burnt tops from their toast in the communal kitchen.

Wade is adept at evoking the gritty texture of the times, taking us seamlessly from the interior lives of her subjects into the world they inhabited and back again. Defiantly unmarried, Sayers relished the freedom she found among the transients of the square, and it was here that she embarked on the series of crime novels that would make her a celebrity, but not before an entanglement with one of H.D.’s would-be lovers, the shady John Cournos: such were the threads binding the square’s occupants together.

The eminent classical scholar Jane Harrison only alighted in Mecklenburgh Square in old age, in the late 1920s. By now she had discarded her comfortable life as a Cambridge don, was living openly with Hope Mirrlees and embracing an international circle of friends and collaborators: ‘Professors of Greek mingled warily with mournful Russian poets, and publishers and Bloomsburyites with distant Yorkshire relatives.’

Eileen Power is the wild card in Wade’s pack, a radical thinker, elegant dresser and a formidably original scholar of economic history. Like Harrison, she embraced the metropolitan coterie of academics at the nearby LSE, and her ‘kitchen dances’, where Fabians would jive with publishers and professors rub shoulders with civil servants, cemented Mecklenburgh Square as the lively hub of an alternative Bloomsbury set, focused on practical politics to reform society.

The story closes with Virginia Woolf, bombed with Leonard out of nearby Tavistock Square and hunkering down against oncoming war. Their occupation of No. 37 was brief, bombs pursuing them and ripping their lives to pieces only a year later, upon which they traded the ‘street sauntering and square haunting’ that Woolf had so loved and thrived on for refuge in Sussex.

Wade distils half a century of social and literary history into these five women’s lives with a marvellously light touch. This is biography as fresh and engaging as you are likely to find.

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