Lottie Whalen talks to editor and author Francesca Wade about her prize-winning book, Square Haunting, the single women who sought to find a room of their own in Bloomsbury, her research and writing processes, and why the book resonates for women today.
Our idea of home has become heightened in the last year, since the pandemic shut down our public spaces, put a stop to physical gatherings of communities, and condensed most of our lives into a few rooms and a screen. Such extreme disruption to daily life brought into sharper relief the divide between those with the luxury of a home large enough to live and work in comfortably, and those squeezed into cramped rooms, all privacy eroded – not to mention the key workers compelled to venture out into a world that seemed unstable, uncanny in its emptiness, and those able to shelter and work at home. Perhaps more than ever before, we’ve gained a new understanding of how our domestic environment shapes us, how it can soothe or stifle, how it’s intrinsically entwined with our prospects, possibilities, and wellbeing.
In those drawn-out blank days – the monotony spiked with an ever-present sense of doom – it was strangely timely to pick up Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, an evocative and moving biography of a group of pioneering women who lived in London’s Mecklenburgh Square in the interwar years. Wade’s meticulously researched and beautifully written text transports the reader back to a corner of Bloomsbury, ‘a district of the city where a room of one’s own could be procured’ for ambitious and independent women of modest means. Tracing the lives, crossovers and connections between a group of disparate writers and intellectuals (Dorothy Sayers, H.D, Eileen Power, Jane Harrison, and Virginia Woolf), it draws out the shared aims and ideals of women who, though different in age and stages of life, each strove to build their own lives in a world that circumscribed what women could (should) want and do. Wade reveals how, for each, small domestic revolutions were linked to wider ambitions for women to have real impact on the world and build a more peaceful, unified future. As Woolf makes clear in Three Guineas, ‘the public and private world are inseparably connected…the tyrannies and servilities of one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other’. Although these women didn’t directly collaborate or even socialise with one another, they each engaged in interlinked processes of rewriting and rethinking women’s lives; in the process they created new bodies of knowledge for later generations of feminists to draw from and contribute to.
There’s much in Square Haunting that feels uncannily familiar. Amid the uncertainties of the pandemic, Woolf’s and Eileen Power’s experience of the phoney war period – the eight months at the start of the Second World War, when little happened but daily life was marked by tedium and muted terror – resonated, particular Power’s feeling as if her ‘mind had been blown out like a candle. I am nothing but an embodied grumble, like everyone else’. Outside of extreme global events, the striving for new, more hopeful ways of living that Woolf summed up in Three Guineas feels as urgent now. A century later, the material conditions required for this work are outside the realm of possibility for so many. The stories of Mecklenburgh Square’s remarkable residents inspire us to be bold and creative as we write the narrative for post-pandemic life, but any call for an affordable room of one’s own and an (actual) living wage in hyper-gentrified London seems futile – ‘surely’, as Woolf wrote in her final novel, 1941’s Between the Acts, ‘it was time someone invented a new plot’. I spoke to author Francesca Wade about Square Haunting and the creative women who inspired it.
Square Haunting offers such a rich and fascinating web of stories! What first drew you to Mecklenburgh Square?
The idea for the project began with H. D. I became so fascinated by her work and associations with Freud, particularly, the period of her life during the First World War when she was experimenting with translation from Greek tragedy, finding the emotional resonance between ancient and contemporary war. And all the while, her husband was out fighting, then coming home and having an affair with a woman who lived upstairs.
Then I realised Virginia Woolf had lived in the very same square, during a different World War. That coincidental connection sparked my thinking about the ways that lives overlap and the ways that physical spaces hold all these different stories within them – there’s so much going on behind closed doors. I began doing research and discovered that several other women writers had set up home in Mecklenburgh Square at different periods in their lives.
The book opens up something that I’m really interested in, which is the struggle for women to live their lives however they want. So much emphasis is placed on the history of the suffrage movement that we maybe forget there were a lot more issues beyond the vote. Could you speak a bit more about what the issue of housing meant to single women in the interwar years?
There were a lot of pioneering women who were, at that time, working for the vote, but also working for education and housing. The idea that housing and the way that women’s private lives were set up would have a massive effect on their public lives and prospects became so important at this time – because the issue of housing encompasses so many things: economic freedom, in terms of being able to afford the rent; the way that you decide who to live with and the effects that might have on family structures; the way that children might be brought up. Particularly for women writers, who wanted to live public, intellectual lives, your home life is really important for enabling the kind of state of mind that will allow for that work.
I was really interested to see how the kind of conversations around housing and working out different ways of living – especially for single women – seemed to be particularly focused on Bloomsbury. There were a lot of factors that made Bloomsbury appealing. It had lots of huge houses originally designed for large wealthy families, but then those families decided they didn’t want to live in Bloomsbury, they wanted to live in West London instead! So those mansions were divided up into flats. This coincided with the time when people were asking what other ways of living there might be. There are so many novels of the period about young women who were setting up home on their own, or with friends, and dealing with landladies and boarding houses. People were experimenting with lots of different setups at that time.
Elsewhere in Square Haunting you touch on Dorothy Sayers, who writes so beautifully about the ups and downs of finding a home as a single woman. What did finding their own space mean to these women?
You really get a sense, in these women’s letters and novels, of the exhilaration that having a place of their own brought about. Dorothy Sayers is a great example in the way that she finds joy in even the boring stuff, like frying an egg or dealing with laundry – it’s so symbolic to her of freedom that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.
One thing I noticed is that obviously many of the women you write about were from privileged backgrounds, which enabled them to live independently, but the support of other women was often essential as well. Was this idea of networks important to you before you started writing the book, or did it become clearer in the process?
I was initially interested in Bloomsbury as a place where so many like-minded women were congregating and grappling with similar questions about how to live. They moved in overlapping circles but weren’t a group in themselves. It became clear, however, that through their work, they spoke to each other and echoed one another’s concerns. They were often building on each other’s work and thought, even if not directly.
My favourite discovery was the fact that Woolf, at the end of her life, was rereading both Jane Harrison and Eileen Power for the work that she never finished. It would have really followed on from a lot of their work – she was thinking about writing a more democratic history of English literature, including working class voices like Power’s, and women who had been written out of history.
Your chapter on Woolf, which is focussed on her final years during World War II, doesn’t shy away from the contradictions in her character. What does Woolf’s unfinished project and this last phase of her life tell us about her?
I think at this time in her life, she was really questioning herself. The sense that death could come at any moment caused her to look back on her childhood, her relationship with her parents and the servants that she lived with through her life, but never particularly thought about. She was also thinking about whether people of her class had anything to contribute to the world, in the more equal order that she agreed was necessary after the war was over.
Square Haunting takes a sort of collective approach to biography, and that, to me, feels like one of its successes. You build such a rich tapestry of interconnected stories and ways of thinking. Would you say that the grand biography or retrospective dedicated to single genius is quite a masculine mode of memorialising, one that doesn’t best serve women’s lives?
That was something I came to believe in more and more over the course of the project. I set out with an idea that putting lives together in snapshots could be a way to focus on things that might be left out of a big narrative. But it became clear that these women were all exploring the same kinds of questions at a hugely turbulent time. I realised that reading them alongside each other, rather than positing each one as a great individual deserving of special attention was a more productive approach. Reading them collectively would cumulatively create a portrait of women at this time, and bring into focus the fact that they were all contributing to a wider collective project.
The women in the book criticised this sort of ‘great men’ narrative of history. In their own work, they were looking to find new ways of telling stories and thinking about history not just as a few famous people, but as a struggle that everyone plays a part in.
In terms of age, I liked the fact that you represented a spectrum, not just the ‘bright young things’ we often find celebrated. You mention that Woolf also didn’t feel like she’d really found her voice until she was around 40. Do you think women lose out when we place too much emphasis on youth?
Yes, definitely. Jane Harrison is the best example of that – it wasn’t until she was surrounded by a stimulating community of women that she not only had the time and money and space to pursue her ideas, but also the support. Her friend Gilbert Murrey is the complete counterpoint to this. He got the top first in his era at Oxford and was immediately catapulted into this lucrative lectureship at the of age 24. If you’re writing his biography, the narrative of youthful promise would be the obvious one! But for Harris, it’s important to show the difficult circumstances she faced.
Woolf is almost 60 at the stage of her life discussed in Square Haunting, but she’s very much still trying to reinvent herself and thinking about how who she is now relates to who she was in her youth. She was really looking back at her life in the way H. D. did too. In the chapter on H. D., I was especially interested to think about the way that she constructed herself through her life; when she was older, she looked back on her youth and rewrote some of those episodes. Like Woolf, H. D. used the past to work out who she was in the present.
The idea that home means so much more than just a place you eat and sleep in really resonates at this moment in time – it has such a huge effect on who we are and what we can achieve. Can you tell me a bit more about what home meant for the women of Mecklenburgh Square?
Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own became a guiding text for Square Haunting, because that room stands for so many things: it’s the practical room and the sense of having a place where you won’t be interrupted while working; it also means that you don’t have to take on the role of the lady in the drawing room, not doing anything important. Wolf’s own move from her family home to Bloomsbury in 1904, was the guiding spirit of the book, even though it doesn’t come in the chapter on her; the sense of freedom that she felt on suddenly being able to completely shake up the way that she lived and start writing herself was so crucial. Writing in her own space and shaking off what she called the ‘angel of the house’ was something that all of the women in Square Haunting were striving for. The work these women did in their homes was an extension of the work they were doing in the outside world, their activism, in terms of trying to create a more equal future.
I remember reading about how when Woolf and her sister Vanessa moved out of the family home, even decorating the space was so exciting and important.
Yes, it was – getting rid of all the old Victorian furniture that had memories of the past and hanging their friends’ art on the walls. It also meant they could invite friends over and create a new social circle, which was hugely important.
It feels like many of the issues that the women in Square Haunting faced still exist today, particularly for people from marginalised communities and/or who are from working class backgrounds – difficulty accessing housing, being shut out of educational and cultural institutions, struggling with all the material things you need to write or create art. If we were to rewrite A Room of One’s Own for the present day, what do you think it would look like?
After Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, she had some correspondence with a mill worker called Agnes Smith. Smith wrote to Woolf to say that she didn’t realise she was just writing about middle class women who have their struggles, but it’s much harder for working women. The full correspondence doesn’t survive but Woolf replied saying write your memoir and I’ll publish it with Hogarth Press – and Smith said ‘no, I don’t have time’!
This year – and all the years since – have shown that those questions are still there. Bloomsbury during the time period covered in Square Haunting was a cheap place to live, it was affordable. Obviously now, there are so few places in London where a single person could rent and worry about money but manage to get by, as H. D. or Dorothy Sayers did.
This time also provides an opportunity to think again about how cities are organised, how to create different ways of living in the city that are affordable and accessible – which would be similar to the revolution happening in Bloomsbury at the turn of the twentieth century.
Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting is published by Faber and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now. Follow Francesca on Twitter @francescawade
Feature images of Francesca Wade by Eleni Stefanou and the front cover of Square Haunting, courtesy of Faber and the author.