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Francesca Wade on the Incredible Women of Mecklenburgh Square

Posted on 9th January 2020 by Mark Skinner

Square Haunting, Francesca Wade's fascinating group biography of five inspirational women in inter-war Bloomsbury, brings the artistic and literary hothouse of Mecklenburgh Square to vivid life. In this exclusive essay, the author discusses the importance of freedom and 'a room of one's own' to the ambitions of these pioneering women.

In her very first short story, written in 1906, Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) imagined two sisters named Phyllis and Rosamond. Born into a well-to-do South Kensington family, the girls have grown up with no education other than preparation for marriage; they are expected to pour tea in the drawing-room for their father’s guests, sit quietly and decorously for the perusal of potential suitors, and do as they are told. But when they are invited to visit some friends in ‘distant and unfashionable’ Bloomsbury, Phyllis is overcome by a vision of the future that might be available if only she were able to reinvent herself afresh in a new place. ‘The stucco fronts, the irreproachable rows of Belgravia and South Kensington seemed to Phyllis the type of her lot; of a life trained to grow in an ugly pattern to match the staid ugliness of its fellows. But if one lived here in Bloomsbury, she began to theorise, waving with her hand as her cab passed through the great tranquil squares, beneath the pale green of umbrageous trees, one might grow up as one liked.’

The story’s roots lay firmly in Woolf’s own autobiography. Through her life, in fiction and in essays, Woolf wrote about the liberating effect of a shift in surroundings; she was always recalling her own departure in 1904, aged twenty-two, from her stifling family home at 22 Hyde Park Gate in Kensington for a ‘new beginning’ at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, where she and her siblings agreed that ‘everything was going to be different’. Here, Woolf and her sister Vanessa had their own studies in which to write and paint; here, they socialised freely with mixed groups of friends, did away with set meal times (though never, ironically, with servants), and began to make their own livings, on their own terms. ‘Now we are free women,’ she wrote to a friend on receiving her first payslip for a book review in the Times Literary Supplement. For Woolf, the story of her birth as a ‘free woman’ was always intimately connected with that thrilling change of address, and with the possibilities contained within the neighbourhood of Bloomsbury itself.

‘A woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write,’ wrote Woolf in 1929. At the turn of the century, women with literary ambitions were thronging to Bloomsbury, eager for the exhilaration of living in the centre of town, close to the British Museum and its famous library, and among the pubs and cafes where students, socialists, artists and philosophers congregated to discuss the pressing affairs of the day. At this time, Bloomsbury was far from the stylish, expensive district it is today. Large houses, built originally as family homes for the upper classes, were being split into flats and boarding-houses due to lack of demand from wealthy residents, who preferred to make their homes in elegant West London, near the royal parks and luxury shops. Instead, Bloomsbury was an area conjuring shabby bohemia, associated with education and political reform, with several influential campaigns for workers’ rights and women’s suffrage holding premises in the neighbourhood. For women writers, seeking a space to develop their talents, Bloomsbury’s affordable lodgings offered the promise of an alternative and fulfilling way of life.

Numerous novels by women writers of this period detail the same sense of excitement that Woolf felt on her first arrival in Bloomsbury. In Violet Hunt’s A Workaday Woman (1906), the narrator Caroline feels a ‘sensation of unaccustomed liberty’ when she goes to Bloomsbury to visit a friend who ‘lives alone in a flat, and pays its rent and supports herself on regular journalism and occasional fiction’. In Radclyffe Hall’s 1924 novel The Unlit Lamp, two women dream of setting up home together in one of the new Working Women’s Flats in Bloomsbury: ’we’d have a little flat together, and be free and very happy’. The heroine of Winifred Holtby’s 1924 novel The Crowded Street is thrilled to leave her small village, where ‘the only thing that mattered was marriage’, to live in Bloomsbury with her friend Delia, who works for ‘one of the most provocative and militant societies in England’, and rails lucidly against ‘marriage as an end of life in itself, as the ultimate goal of the female soul’s development’.

For all these writers, and for Woolf herself, a room in Bloomsbury represented something much wider than its material advantage. It symbolised a life where their desires could take precedence, where they could work on creative projects without interruption, and decide for themselves who they wanted to be. For all the women in my book — who each lived in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square at some point in the years between the world wars — independent life remained complicated and fraught. Experimental living has always entailed sacrifice and compromise, and they faced regular challenges — emotional, practical and financial — as they sought to find their voices in a world still governed by men. Yet their time in Mecklenburgh Square produced fascinating works of literature, forged new relationships, and allowed them space to think deeply about their values and ambitions. In researching their lives in this small corner of London, I have been moved by their determination to carve out new moulds for living – varied, multiple, complex, sometimes dangerous, yet always founded on a commitment to personal integrity and a deep desire for knowledge, as they worked to shape a more equal future. 

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