This is about Dorothy L. Sayers. It is also about Hilda Doolittle (H. D.), Jane Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf. It’s about a place – Mecklenburgh Square in London – and about a time – various years from the 1920s to the 1940s. This is about a remarkable and amazing book that links these often disparate authors with their history, and how each of them shaped the world and work of women for all who followed.
Francesca Wade began this work when she was walking through the current Mecklenburgh Square and saw only one of the famous blue plaques that identify the former residence of an important person. Hilda Doolitte – H. D. – was the only one of these women that were so identified. But Wade knew the other four had also lived in this Square, and she set out to write this story that links them together not only by geography but also by thinking and writing.
H.D. lived at #44 from 1916-1918. Dorothy L. Sayers also lived at #44, from December 1920-December 1921. The historian and archaeologist Jane Harrison lived at #11 from 1926-1928. Economist Eileen Power lived there the longest, at #20 from 1922-1940. Virginia Woolf moved to #37 at the beginning of World War II – August 1939 until her death in October 1940. For each woman, the time living in this place was significant in shaping their life and thought and gave them freedom and context to both begin and continue their work.
For Sayers, it was a time when her personal life was in some turmoil. She was in a relationship with John Cournos, and her sense of that was different in many ways than his, but she continued to be with him. It’s interesting how, in this book, the same people show up in all kinds of relationships with the others, and John Cournos is one of those who seems to be everywhere! Sayers was just 27 when she lived in Mecklenburgh Square, but she loved the place and was very sad when her landlady asked all the tenants to leave in 1921.
One of my attractions to Sayers’ work over the years has been trying to get a better sense of this time between the wars, and of being fascinated with its implications for women. I believe women in the rest of the West owe a great deal to the British women of this time. Their writing has left us a legacy and a foundation that has allowed women everywhere to use their gifts to the fullest extent and to carve out a place in our male-dominant culture that eventually changes it. Wade effectively uses Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as a conceit throughout to show how important a place to be and the freedom to be there was for these women.
Toward the end of the book, Wade talks about a book of “common history” that Woolf was writing, a book that borrowed much from the writing of other inhabitants of the Square. Woolf wanted a history that didn’t value war and victory, but “emphasize(d) peace and community over authority and power.” Wade writes, “Not only was Woolf conjuring for readers a different sort of past, founded on the values of peace and cooperation so sorely needed in the present, but she was also placing herself in a tradition of Mecklenburgh Square women resetting the boundaries of history.”
Read Square Haunting and place yourself in Mecklenburgh Square with these remarkable women.