Square Haunting | Francesca Wade #GBRnonfiction

A few minutes past midnight on Tuesday, 10 September 1940, an air raid struck Mecklenburgh Square.

After a mini-reading slump in April, I needed something to capture my attention and my heart. Normally I would go to some cosy crime, or pick up a Jane Austen. Instead, this time, I found myself in the warm embrace of narrative non-fiction. Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars was exactly what I needed to rediscover my reading mojo.

WWI until the beginning of WWII, is one of my favourite historical periods. There’s something about the resilience and courage of those who survived WWI that is eternally appealing to me. Their emerging freedoms and daring new fashions, the unconventional new music and art and literature are the antithesis and the antidote to the lingering grief and heartache from WWI, as they live with the very real fear that it could all happen again, with the rise of fascism and right-wing politics.

Wade has done a tremendous job to make this time come alive through the voices of five fascinating women, who happened to leave in one square in London, at different times, for different reasons. Mecklenburgh Square was in the heart of Bloomsbury, which had become the intellectual and literary hub of London. Our five women, in order of residence, were H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf.

I picked up the book thanks to Virginia. Although I’ve only successfully read two of her books all the way through, I’m fascinated by her life story. I had read some of Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey books a few years ago, but the other three were relatively unknown to me. I certainly wasn’t expecting how much these women would come to mean to me by the end of the book.

Wade begins her book with a potted history of the area of London out of which Mecklenburgh Square grew, including maps and old photographs. The following histories of the five women are so heavily underlined in my book, that I will refrain from stacking this post with quotes and lists of observations, tempting as it is. Square Haunting is a book you simply must read for yourself!

The final chapter deals with the bombing of Mecklenburgh Square in WWII and how it was rebuilt and used in modern times. An extensive section full of notes and a selected bibliography completes this delightful and completely satisfying book. I have already been tempted to read online bio’s about these women and to seek out more of their work, especially their poetry and essays.

Square Haunting is for anyone who loves feminist literature, multi-generational group biographies, geography and history with a psychological slant, modernism and very fine writing. Wade kept my interest the entire time with her elegant, warm, intelligent writing style. It was a pleasure at every turn.

I think this may be my favourite and best book of 2021 to date.

Clockwise from top left: Dorothy Sayers, Virginia Woolf, Eileen Power, Hilda Doolittle, and Jane Ellen Harrison.
NY Times 7 April 2020

Epigraph:

‘I like this London life . . . the street-sauntering and square-haunting.’ – Virginia Woolf, diary, 1925

Facts:

  • Longlisted for the 2020 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction

Favourite Quote:

Is not something written by Wade, but a comment attributed to Dorothy L. Sayers, when asked at age 43, if she would like to be 21 again.

For no bribe would we again have endured the fumbling experience, the emotional miseries, the self-conscious humiliations of youth….Youth is an unsatisfactory period, full of errors, uncertainties and distress. You will grow out of it. What’s more, you were meant to grow out of it, into something more mature and satisfactory. Don’t let middle-aged people get away with the story that this is the best time of your life and that there is nothing to look forward to…Go on doing the thing you think you ought, or want, to be doing at the moment, and at about 40 you may discover that you actually are doing it and settle down to enjoy it.

Links to Related Posts:

Book: Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars 
Author: Francesca Wade
ISBN: 9780571330669
Publisher: Faber
Date: 1st March 2021 (originally published 2020)
Format: Paperback

21 thoughts on “Square Haunting | Francesca Wade #GBRnonfiction

  1. I’d probably love this. Bloomsbury is my favourite part of London. When we travel to Europe we usually start in London so that I can see my niece, and we stay around the corner from the British Museum which is my favourite museum in all the world. From there it is walking distance to Bloomsbury and we have done walks there, using a great book called Literary Walks in London. It’s just the best place for literary pilgrimage ever!

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  2. I have this on my shelves. I’ve been saving it for just the right time but your review makes me want to pull it off my shelves immediately.

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  3. I’ve been hesitating about this one since it was published; it looked fascinating but since I mostly read fiction these days I could see it sitting on the shelf! Your review reminds me of why I was so tempted to get it, so perhaps I’ll finally take the plunge!

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    1. As narrative non-fiction, it almost reads like a novel. I think you will enjoy it when you finally decide the time is right. It’s the kind of book, when I recommend it at work, people make the effort to come back and tell me how much they loved it.

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    1. I think it may have been your review in Shiny New Books that was in the back of my mind when I first picked it up. I’ll add a link to it now, as you’ve done a magnificent job of saying why I loved this book so much too ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. I heard about this book when it came out (on a podcast maybe) and it sounded very interesting. Thanks for reminding me of it. I have put a request in at the library for it. Glad it helped you with your slump.

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