Searching for geography in biography with Francesca Wade

Plaques, memorial gatherings, tourist itineraries and pilgrimages – many practices in everyday culture are about pinning lives to a specific place. When someone famous lived or died near or in a place that is now a commercial establishment, the history of that famous person will be immediately taken up to attract more people. But in London, writer Francesca Wade found a square that accommodated not one but at least five famous lives, and it doesn’t appear like it’s been exploited for tourism. The catch is, these famous people were all women.

Wade’s phenomenal research, which apparently took three years, fleshes out the lives of five writers as much as it is possible, with many letters and diaries deliberately destroyed as these women tried to curate the way they will be remembered. The book (see The Guardian’s review here) was included in the list of compulsory literature for my non-fiction writing diploma course at Cambridge in order to show us an example of using research. Last week we were also offered an opportunity to meet Wade herself and ask questions.

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London between the Wars weaves five lives together, as the writers shared an ambition to carve out a space both physically (a room of one’s own, a recurring theme from Virginia Woolf, one of the featured writers) and professionally. The Mecklenburgh square, where all five lived at some point, had several advantages for this purpose – it was close to the British Library, right in the middle of a neighbourhood known for parties and bohemian gatherings, and offered houses suitable for single persons. The developer of the housing complex, Wade writes, initially wanted to attract middle-class families, but failing to do so spit the flats and started offering rooms to students and ‘lady workers’.

To make sure that the work reads as a group biography and not a collection of five biographies, the author draws parallels whenever she can find any, and seeks meeting spaces between the characters. At times it felt a bit stretched. But overall it’s an immensely enjoyable experiment at structuring a narrative around the place, promoting the inconspicuous square into a potential lieu de memoire (place of memory), as per Pierre Nora.

As a freelance journalist, I find the stories of these writers’ professional struggles particularly relatable, and they made me think of various friends. Dorothy L. Sayers, author of, reportedly, the first feminist detective novel, got a job as a copywriter and enjoyed it immensely. Jane Harrison moved to London to reinvent herself and immerse herself in translation and language-geeking. And the story of Eileen Power made me think of my close friend Ugnė, also a historian of daily life and working people. Power was the least known and most fun to write about, Wade said in our Q&A.

As I was reading the book, I wanted to see more illustrations and maps. My classmates agreed – sometimes a drawing could have worked better than a blurry photo. It made me think that the next edition of the book could be a graphic novel. It would read even lighter, and all the research could be embodied in details.

Before that happens, if ever, it’s a book worth reading as it is.

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