Book Review — Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade is a history of Mecklenburgh Square through women writers who lived there in the early twentieth century. Wade has written for publications including the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times, the New  Statesman, and Prospect. She is editor of The White Review and a winner of the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize. 

Five women writers at different times in the early years of the twentieth century lived at Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury. Perhaps the most famous of the residents was Virginia Woolf. Although I have read Woolf’s letters and diaries from the period, it was interesting to see that information in the context of the time and place. Other writers include H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), the poet, and colleague of Ezra Pound. Mecklenburgh resident Dorothy L. Sayers was a famous and still popular for her detective novelist. Eileen Power was a writer of a different sort. She was appointed to the Chair of Economic History at the London School of Economics and was a medieval historian. Lastly, Jane Harrison was one of the founders of the modern study of Greek mythology.

All five women were accomplished in their fields, and received some notoriety in their time; Most have gained celebrity as the century progressed. They were not only trailblazers in their fields but also radicals in their personal lives. Creativity and the androgynous mind is a theme in the series along with lifestyles outside the norm. Although not flamboyant, these women broke out of the mold for their time, whether in relationships, women’s rights, nontraditional roles, literary style, or even thoughts on war. Square Haunting is the discovery of women who fought to change education and the role of women in England. Woolf sums up women’s feelings during the early twentieth century. “…since women have historically had little, if any, stake in their country — deprived of education, employment, and political influence — the forced of patriotism which spur men to fight mean little to women.” Women here saw the struggle as a world problem, not a national one. The idea of nationalism, especially in that era, was a cause of war and restrictions of which Woolf would say, “As a woman my country is the whole world.”

Wade presents a well-documented history and partial biography of the five women. Using their lives at Mecklenburgh Square as a limiting factor, she manages to create snapshots of a time and place in British history and the role of women who challenged the status quo. 

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