Since it was published in 1929, women readers have mused mightily on Virginia Woolf’s celebrated essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Why, Woolf asked, have women been idealised in the literary imagination and yet been denied the space and freedom, literal as well as metaphorical, to live out their own intellectual and creative enthusiasms? All that was needed, Woolf famously wrote, was a room of one’s own and sufficient means to keep oneself. Francesca Wade’s absorbing, if dogged, exploration of the lives of five intelligent, searching women living in or near Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, in the 1920s and 1930s, explores ideas of female autonomy and desire and the knotted contradictions inside the larger question of what it is to be free.
It’s an excellent theme for a book. Wade came across a blue plaque commemorating the Imagist poet HD (the pen name of Hilda Doolittle) on a house in Mecklenburgh Square and got to wondering. Her researches led her to four other women who had lived in the square or just off it between the wars. HD had moved into rooms at number 44 in 1915. In 1920 Dorothy L Sayers took over the same rooms and there created Lord Peter Wimsey. The historian Eileen Power moved to the square around the same time as Sayers, staying for a brief period. In 1939, Virginia and Leonard Woolf rented number 37, from where they ran the Hogarth Press and in which Virginia worked on her biography of Roger Fry. The maverick classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison moved just around the corner in 1926 to Mecklenburgh Street, where she wrote The Book of the Bear, a compilation of bear-related mythology and ritual.