I think I must have run across a reference to Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting in the archives of Furrowed Middlebrow, no doubt here. (Furrowed Middlebrow shares my reading tastes almost exactly, though I have to admit I have never managed to get on with Ivy Compton-Burnett, despite Barbara Pym’s admiration for her works.) The LRU library had a copy of Wade’s book, so I checked it out last week and plunged happily in, only to find that it was not what I had expected. Not that Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow had described the book in any detail, so I don’t know what formed my expectations.

The book uses Mecklenburgh Square as a device to link the lives of five women who lived there in the first half of the twentieth century: H. D., Dorothy Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf. Being what I am, of course I had heard of all of these women, and have read biographies of at least two of them, though I confess I had never known that H. D. was originally from Philadelphia. But Power and Sayers were significant medievalists, and one of my good friends from LRU is a Woolf specialist, so I’m pretty well acquainted with a lot of the book’s material.

What I had hoped for was, precisely, more material: material culture, architecture, geography. Maps and house plans. The influence of surroundings on one’s creative and/or intellectual life. How Mecklenburgh Square’s layout and location proved so conducive to women’s writing and research. Who cooked for themselves, who ate in a boarding house, who had a servant. Where the women wrote, how they arranged their rooms, how long it took to get to their workplaces if they were going somewhere other than the British Library.

I suppose such work would be feasible only where architectural plans and interior photographs survive, due to WWII bombing and later changes in the fabric of the square. There are hints, for example the “apricot-colored walls” and “blue carpet” of H. D.’s room, where she “slept on a low chintz-covered couch that doubled as a sofa” (54). Sayers described the same room when she lived in it: “a lovely Georgian room, with three great windows . . . and a balcony looking onto the square. There is an open fireplace . . . no electric light” (100). Sayers also noted that “the one really vital necessity for living in unfurnished digs is a frying-pan” (101), though it seems she often ate in restaurants (or so she told her parents). Harrison lived in what she described as “a queer little house,” “a tiny mousetrap of a house,” “our new cave” (180), which descriptions are cute but uninformative. She had a housekeeper, so as not to be distracted by domestic duties. Power described her space as “a charming half-house . . . looking onto an enormous garden of trees” (199), where she had space enough to house an impecunious student, and where, Wade writes, she “set up a desk by the window . . . and decorated her quarters lavishly with the ornaments she’d bought in China and knickknacks found in Parisian ‘curiosity shops'” (213). Power herself said “I never realised before how one’s material surroundings could affect one’s spirits, and what a difference to one’s state of mind could be made by a merrily served meal” (214). She, too, had a housekeeper. The Woolfs put the Hogarth Press in the basement of the house in which they lived on the top two floors: “The kitchen very small. Everything too large. Stairs bad. No carpets” (248).

There are two small maps, and a reproduction of D. H. Lawrence’s sketch of directions to the square from the Russell Street Tube station. I stared at these, wondering if I had been to Mecklenburgh Square, thinking that I have certainly been all around it, walked in Coram Fields, shopped at the Waitrose near the Russell Street tube, stayed at the Tavistock Hotel, done research at both the old and new British Libraries as well as at one of the Inns of Court. But I could not call up a mental image of the square until, in the final chapter, Wade indicated that its south side become London House. D’oh! Of course I’ve been there. I once stayed with a friend from grad school in London House, where I bathed in a tub long enough to lie down in, and finally understood that when the speaker in “Norwegian Wood” says he crawled off to sleep in the bath, he didn’t mean dozing off sitting up in hot water.

I was delighted to learn more of Hope Mirrlees, who was a student of and companion to Jane Harrison. When I was 12 or so, a relative gave me the Ballantine Books reprint of Lud-in-the-Mist, which I found both odd and haunting. Probably I was too young for it; it is still on my shelves, so perhaps I should re-read and reconsider it. At any rate, I never knew anything about its author, and it appears that neither did many other people: when the BBC did a broadcast of it in 1978, they thought she was dead or that the name was a pseudonym, but Mirrlees was still living, though she died later the same year. Wade reproduces a picture of her, a striking dark-haired woman who looks as if she laughed easily. But after Harrison’s death, Mirrlees mostly gave up writing. Her life seems to have the same sort of inconclusive shape that I remember Lud-in-the-Mist having, though this may be a completely inaccurate memory of the book.

At any rate, if anyone wants to track down the architectural plans and photographs, you could write the book I hoped for, less about the active and emotional lives of these women, more about the material conditions with which they contended. But perhaps it wouldn’t sell. I may be rather peculiar in my interest in the physical world inhabited by authors. Or perhaps not: why, after all, are there so many house tours and house museums?

One thought on “Square Haunting

Comments are now closed.