Five biographies of pioneering women who pushed boundaries and changed the world forever.
The title of this book, Square Haunting, is a bit of a misnomer. Taken from Virginia Woolf's 1927 essay “Street Haunting”, about the ethereal pleasures of walking London's city streets, Francesca Wade's debut concentrates on pioneering women who broke boundaries. Mecklenburgh Square is the location where five extraordinary women – Hilda Doolittle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf – lived at one time or another. The five didn't work together in a concerted cultural effort, although there were informal links and much mutual admiration.
Mecklenburgh Square between the two world wars was an easy going place where the rent was cheap, perfect for society's fringe dwellers, intellectuals and artists. Landladies didn't ask too many probing questions and independently minded women could attain that most cherished “room of one's own”, rather than the typical destiny of marriage, children and putting husband first.
The five biographies that are the core of Square Haunting centre on the often soul destroying difficulties of trying to establish a career in a male dominated world. Well credentialed and talented women were passed over time and time again in favour of mediocre but well connected men. The anthropologist, Jane Ellen Harrison, is a good case in point. She was continually denied university roles based solely on her gender.
The poet Hilda Doolittle and crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers would both write about the importance of female independence and being equal partners in marriage. Historian Eileen Power wrote books that highlighted the important, but overlooked, roles women had played in the past. She was also a passionate pacifist. Virginia Woolf needs no introduction. Wade concentrates on Woolf's feminist writings and her final, tortured months at Mecklenburgh Square as Hitler's bombs devastated the city.
Francesca Wade has written an inspiring history of the decades between the wars, through the prism of five brilliant writers and activists. Inspiring because it shows how tenacity and courage, sometimes sacrifice, can bring forth change. Hilda Doolittle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf all laid the path for future generations and the freedoms we enjoy today.
Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade. Published by Bloomsbury. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books