Virginia Woolf in 1927

Subversion in Bloomsbury—and why Woolf's grappling with freedom still resonates today

Francesca Wade offers an elegant account of five women pursuing creative freedom in cosmopolitan London
January 28, 2020

“I like this London life, the street sauntering and square haunting,” wrote Virginia Woolf. Francesca Wade, a literary editor and Prospect contributor, borrows Woolf’s observation as the title for her composite biography of five women for whom Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury offered a room of their own, and a place where their ideas about identity and their role in society were formed. As the cosmopolitan heart of London’s intellectual life, Bloomsbury had an excitingly rackety reputation in the early 20th century: moving there from the grim respectability of her father’s Kensington house, Woolf felt “at the centre of things.”

Of Wade’s subjects, only Woolf and Dorothy L Sayers, creator of the detective Lord Peter Wimsey, remain widely known. On her death in 1961, the American-born poet Hilda Doolittle, known as HD, was “lauded as a genius and promptly forgotten about.” The reputation of the classical scholar Jane Harrison survived mainly as a footnote to Virginia Woolf’s Diaries, until it was restored by her biographer, Mary Beard, while the visionary medieval historian Eileen Power—one of the most vivid of Wade’s portraits—is still annually celebrated at Girton College, Cambridge, but lacks the réclame of her LSE colleague, Richard Tawney.

Observing her subjects through the frame of their residency in Mecklenburgh Square, Wade offers an elegant account of the knotty questions of freedom and responsibility that preoccupied them, and continue to preoccupy women today. She largely swerves the question of how to combine a creative life with motherhood: three of her subjects were childless; Sayers and HD each had an illegitimate child, for whose upbringing they found austerely pragmatic solutions. But her narrative rings with her subjects’ fiercely subversive questioning of established power structures: “As a woman,” Power wrote, “my country is the whole world.”

Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade (Faber & Faber, £20)