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.
‘I like this London life . . . the street-sauntering and square-haunting.’ – Virginia Woolf, diary, 1925
- Longlisted for the 2020 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction
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:
- A Poem For a Thursday – Virginia Woolf
- One Girl | Sappho
- Sea Poppies | H. D.
- Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings wrote a very comprehensive review on Shiny New Books back in Feb 2020
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