In the Square
Personally, we should be willing to read one volume about every street in the City, and should still ask for more.
—Virginia Woolf, “London Revisited” (1916)
Marooned on an island in the middle of a busy junction, a stone woman stoops to fill an urn with water. The drinking fountain on which she kneels has long since run dry; the steps leading down to the public lavatories behind her are boarded up; the elegant parade of Georgian buildings to her right is severed by a busy construction site. She breathes the fumes of cars passing down Guilford Street, which connects Bloomsbury with Clerkenwell and London’s east, while workmen perch on her pedestal to eat their sandwiches. She is a remnant of the past frozen in the present, her name and story buried like the Fleet river on whose banks Guilford Street was built.
Cities are composed of roads and buildings, but also of myths and memories: stories which bring the brick and asphalt to life, and bind the present to the past. For Virginia Woolf, this unassuming statue just outside the entrance to Mecklenburgh Square—the Woman of Samaria, commissioned by a group of sisters in memory of their mother and designed by Henry Darbishire in 1870—was “one of the few pieces of sculpture in the streets of London that is pleasing to the eye.” In a city decorated liberally with images of hoary statesmen in celebration of their service to the Empire, Woolf was intrigued by this anonymous woman, who seemed to represent an alternative, hidden history. “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,” Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own
. In that book, she describes wandering the streets of London and observing women talking, walking, shopping, and selling; their everyday animation reminds her of “the accumulation of unrecorded life” which historians—in their habitual focus on “the lives of great men”—were yet to chronicle. For Woolf, the statue paid subversive tribute to the forgotten women of London’s past, a small but significant reminder of the figures who have been left out of books, or whose talents were never allowed to reach their full potential, simply because they were women.
In May 1917, T. S. Eliot described for his mother a visit to the American poet Hilda Doolittle, his new colleague on the Egoist
magazine. “London is an amazing place,” he wrote. “One is constantly discovering new quarters; this woman lives in a most beautiful dilapidated old square, which I had never heard of before; a square in the middle of town, near King’s Cross station, but with spacious old gardens about it.” Somehow, Mecklenburgh Square has remained a quiet enclave out on Bloomsbury’s easternmost edge, separated from the better-known garden squares by Coram’s Fields and the brutalist ziggurat of the Brunswick Centre. It is bounded by a graveyard (St. George’s Gardens) and the noisy Gray’s Inn Road, while its central garden—unusually for Bloomsbury—remains locked to nonresidents and hidden behind high hedges. But for D. H. Lawrence, a one-time lodger there, Mecklenburgh Square was the “dark, bristling heart of London.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, Mecklenburgh Square was a radical address. And during the febrile years which encompassed the two world wars, it was home to the five women writers whose stories form this book. Virginia Woolf arrived with her bags and boxes at a moment of political chaos; she deliberated in her diaries “how to go on, through war,” unaware that another writer had asked exactly that question in the same place twenty-three years earlier, as Zeppelin raids toppled the books from her shelf. Hilda Doolittle, known as H. D., lived at 44 Mecklenburgh Square during the First World War, and hosted Lawrence and his wife Frieda while her husband Richard Aldington was fighting in France. In 1921, three years after H. D. had left the square abruptly for a new start in Cornwall, Dorothy L. Sayers created Lord Peter Wimsey, the swaggering hero of her first detective novel, in the very same room where H. D. had begun work on the autobiographical novel cycle that would occupy her for the rest of her life. From 1926 to 1928, Jane Ellen Harrison, the pioneer of classical and anthropological studies, supported a Russian-language literary magazine from the square, working among a diverse milieu of diaspora intellectuals. And at number 20, between 1922 and 1940, the historian Eileen Power convened socialist meetings to chart an anti-fascist future, scripted pacifist broadcasts for the BBC, and hosted raucous parties in her kitchen.
These women were not a Bloomsbury Group: they lived in Mecklenburgh Square at separate times, though one or two knew each other, and others were connected through shared interests, friends, even lovers. H. D. and Sayers lived in the square when their careers had hardly begun, Woolf and Harrison at the very ends of their lives; Power lived there for almost two decades, Sayers and Woolf just one year each. But for all of them, in different ways, their time in the square was formative. They all agreed that the structures which had long kept women subordinate were illusory and mutable: in their writing and their lifestyles, they wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women. In Mecklenburgh Square, each dedicated herself to establishing a way of life that would let her fulfill her potential, to finding relationships that would support her work and a domestic setup that would enable it. But it was not always easy. Their lives in the square demonstrate the challenges, personal and professional, that met—and continue to meet—women who want to make their voices heard.
Though I’ve lived in London all my life, I’d never heard of Mecklenburgh Square until I walked through it by chance one summer evening in 2013. Gazing up at the firmly drawn curtains above H. D.’s weather-worn blue plaque (the only commemoration of any of them there today), I tried to imagine the conversations that had taken place just a few meters away, almost a hundred years earlier. Later, at home, reading about this mysterious square and its illustrious roster of past inhabitants, I was astonished to learn that so many other women writers—some of whose names were unknown to me, but whose lives and work sounded as fascinating as the more famous ones—had made their homes here around the same time. I wanted to know what had drawn these women here, and what sort of lives they’d lived in these tall, dignified houses, where they had written such powerful works of history, memoir, fiction, and poetry—often recreating the square itself in their work. Was their shared address simply a coincidence? Or was there something about Mecklenburgh Square that had exerted on each of them an irresistible pull? They all seemed, on the surface, such different characters, preoccupied by divergent concerns and moving in separate, if occasionally overlapping, circles—but was there anything fundamental that united them, beyond the simple fact that they had happened to alight, at some point, in this hidden corner of Bloomsbury?
The next time I found myself nearby, I took a detour to Mecklenburgh Square. As I wandered around looking for gaps in the thick hedge through which I might glimpse the garden, I remembered Virginia Woolf’s famous declaration of 1929: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” Turning back for a last glance at H. D.’s balcony as I headed toward Russell Square tube, I wondered if Woolf’s extraordinary essay might help me understand the texture of these women’s lives here, the prejudices they were fighting and the opportunities they grasped. I began to suspect that what H. D., Sayers, Harrison, Power, and Woolf herself were seeking in Mecklenburgh Square was everything Woolf had urged women writers to pursue: a room of their own, both literal and symbolic; a domestic arrangement which would help them to live, work, love, and write as they desired. Perhaps, I thought, it was this which attracted them all, in the interwar years, to Bloomsbury: a place already with a literary heritage, close to the British Museum Reading Room and the theatres and restaurants of the West End, where a new kind of living seemed possible, and where radical thought might flourish amid a political atmosphere founded on a zeal for change.
Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Wade. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.