The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review | Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars. By Francesca Wade. Penguin Random House, 2020. 420 pp. $28.99 (cloth).

Reviewed by Alexis Pogorelskin, University of Minnesota-Duluth

Group biographies can provide a broad perspective while offering insights into their individual subjects. They can also detail phenomena that biographies devoted to a single person might find difficult to capture, such as the zeitgeist or mood of an era, while avoiding the distortion of an individual gaze. Successful examples that are relevant to the book under review include Abraham Pais’s The Genius of Science: A Portrait Gallery of Twentieth Century Physicists (2000) and Derek Offerd’s Portraits of Early Russian Liberals (1985).

Francesca Wade, in Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars, captures a network of intimate connections with her treatment of five writers who resided in London’s Mecklenburgh Square in the interwar years: H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf, all of them pioneers in reviving and expanding culture after the First World War. In fact, more than residency in a shared neighborhood joined these women. As Wade shows, all five were interconnected through their work, shared family relations, or romantic lives. H. D., married to the novelist Richard Aldington, resided in the square from February 1916 to March 1918. The Russian novelist, translator, and diplomat John Cournos lived on the top floor of their building. Aldington proceeded to take up with Cournos’s ex-partner, and H.D. left the square lost and humiliated. She “sought out Freud [and] wrote books that gave voice to her suffering” (61). In 1920, Sayers took the very room that H.D. had moved out of two years earlier. Through 1921, Sayers had a difficult romantic relationship with Cournos. Wade claims that Sayers wrote Strong Poison as revenge on her former lover.

Not all the connections existed out of wedlock. Although Jane Harrison and Virginia Woolf resided in Mecklenburgh Square in different decades, the classicist was “a major influence and inspiration” for Woolf (157) . Harrison’s partner, the poet and novelist Hope Mirrlees, befriended Karin Costello. Costello later married Woolf’s brother Adrian Stephen, thus connecting old Bloomsbury to the artistic residents of Mecklenburgh Square.

The medievalist and economic historian Eileen Power resided in Mecklenburgh Square from 1922 until her untimely death in the summer of 1940. R.H. Tawney, one of her most important collaborators, resided nearby, in the same building that H.D. and Sayers had occupied. Power’s most promising pupil, M.M. Posten, attended Tawney and Power’s Mecklenburgh Square seminars before moving in with Power permanently.

Woolf was the last of the five to move into a house on the square. Wade suggests the change of residence in early 1939, while unsettling at first, encouraged the form and shape of her last novel , Between the Acts. This novel, according to Wade, provides an “alternative history of England focused . . . on culture, women, and communities—very much in the spirit of Eileen Power’s and Jane Harrison’s work” (289).

Wade moves gracefully from a discussion of H.D.’s poetry to Sayers’s crime fiction, from Harrison’s innovative interpretations of Greco-Roman culture to Power’s economic history, but Wade is at her best with Virginia Woolf. In sum, she uncover s a gold mine of influence and connections among five major contributors to British culture in the interwar period. With so many men of their generation killed in the First World War , gifted women had to be the innovators and bearers of culture after 1914. Mecklenburgh Square links them. It is, too, a metaphor for the “room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolf deems a prerequisite for such creativity.

To this reviewer, a Russian historian, there lies within Wade’s group biography another important book, namely one on the impact of Russian culture in interwar Britain. In fact, Wade’s most recent work adds new clarity to the profound significance of Russian culture in the West between the wars.
Of the five in this collective biography, the writer most under the spell of that culture was Harrison, immersing herself in it in “the last five years of her life” (146). As the co-translator of The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, by Himself, the autobiography of a seventeenth-century rebel against the centralizing policies of the Russian Orthodox church, Harrison became, as Wade states, “a mediator between Russian exiles and the fashionable circles of Bloomsbury” (178).

However, the impact of Russian culture on the intellectual production of the other writers included in Wade’s book also provokes considerable questions. For example, did the Russian Jewish émigré novelist turned diplomat Cournos, who had relationships with both H.D. and Sayers, have an even more profound impact on their work than Wade suggests? Did Cournos, for example, introduce H.D., the Imagist, to the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and the Acmeists, so similar in form and motive? During Cournos’s year-long relationship with Sayers, when she wrote Whose Body?, did exposure to Russian literature, specifically to Crime and Punishment, through her Russian lover, encourage her to explore the moral and literary profundities of detective fiction?

Woolf and her husband published nine Russian works in translation at the Hogarth Press. Woolf studied Russian to read Crime and Punishment and sought out Isaiah Berlin at the end of her life to learn more about the culture (Berlin in conversation with the reviewer). The question that lurks within the lives of each of the five subjects in this biography remains: was Russian culture for British intellectuals, from the First World War through the 1920s , what European exilic culture was for U.S. cinema and science in the 1930s?

Finally, this reviewer found jarring the excessive use of the word “interrogate.” Do the humanities take prisoners? Or did the author mean to emphasize the aggressive confrontation with their society her five subjects felt obligated to conduct? Wade is otherwise innovative in her conclusions and perceptive in her judgments. This is a book to ponder and learn from.

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