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The interwar literary life of women: 3 books for Nonfiction November

by J. C. Greenway
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interwar literary life of women
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This week’s prompt for Nonfiction November is to ‘be the expert’ and ‘share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend.’ I chose three recent reads that look ‘behind the scenes’ of the interwar literary life of women: Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade, Eileen: The Making of George Orwell by Sylvia Topp and The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling.

Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

Square Haunting is a wide-ranging consideration of the importance of London’s Mecklenburgh Square on five women writers and thinkers – H. D., Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf – who were all drawn at different, sometimes almost overlapping, times to this corner of Bloomsbury, in search of what Woolf herself proclaimed so vital to a woman’s writing career: a room of one’s own.

These women were not a Bloomsbury Group: they lived in Mecklenburgh Square at separate times, though one or two knew each other, and others were connected through shared interests, friends, even lovers. H. D. and Sayers lived in the square when their careers had hardly begun, Woolf and Harrison at the very ends of their lives; Power lived there for almost two decades, Sayers and Woolf just one year each. But for all of them, in different ways, their time in the square was formative… in their writing and their lifestyles they wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women.

The London Blitz and postwar rebuilding efforts changed the face of the square forever, but in Wade’s detailed study of the five lives it lives again, as a pocket of the city ‘where we can still recall a radical past,’ a place of sanctuary and succor for these talented women, at a time when they were expected to fulfil more traditional roles alongside Great Literary Men and not strike out for glory on their own accounts.

Sound interesting? You can buy this book from an independent bookseller via this affiliate link. I may earn a small commission if you do.

Eileen: The Making of George Orwell by Sylvia Topp

The first biography of Eileen Blair, George Orwell’s first wife, a task made more daunting for Sylvia Topp by the couple’s mania for destroying the correspondence that flowed between them or that friends wrote to them. The initial chapters are a bit dense with biographical information, although this does help to centre Eileen in Orwell’s world – like him she had civil servants in the family, but unlike him she went to Oxford. It is when Eileen and the writer then known as Eric cross paths that the tale really begins to sparkle, pieced together from the memories and memoirs and letters to people with less strict destruction policies.

Though they caused a lot of consternation by marrying while relatively penniless and going off to live in the country, the prevailing mood is one of contentment and books, only marred by occasional goat trouble*. (* not a euphemism/typo)

I think the only year that I ever knew [Orwell] really happy was that first year with Eileen.

Though neither of them had a conventional view of marriage and although his work still came first, Eileen had her own liaisons and projects, as well as playing a not inconsiderable part in keeping her husband alive long enough to write the books that made his reputation. Even by the standards of the 1930s, they both are falling apart at the seams physically and, once the Blitz begins, it takes a toll on them both mentally, as the destruction of her Mecklenburgh Square home in Square Haunting did on Virginia Woolf.

If you remember the #ThanksforTyping hashtag on Twitter, which talked about the often underacknowledged burden placed on academic wives, this is a book-length version, with expert typist Eileen playing a crucial role in keeping her husband’s notes and carbons under control. It is a comprehensive portrait of a genuine partnership, and of two people who determined to make the best of the time they had together, knowing it might be short.

You can purchase a copy of Eileen from a local independent bookseller via this affiliate link. I may earn a small commission if you do.

The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling

Hilary Spurling’s book treads similar ground for George Orwell’s second wife, Sonia. Prior to marrying him she was a girl about literary town, assistant to Cyril Connolly at Horizon magazine, while befriending and supporting many of the greats of her time. Although she had caught his eye while he was well, there is an element of Orwell having chosen her less as a wife and more as a literary executor, knowing he didn’t have long left and with an eye to his future reputation and sales.

But he left her an impossible task: hating the idea of a biography, believing that a writer’s words should stand on their own, he instructed her to turn down all requests. In trying to honour this, she turned all of literary London against her, lamenting just before she died that she felt she had ‘damaged’ him.

Sonia had a take-no-prisoners approach to life, especially in later life, but as Jenny Diski notes in her review of The Girl From the Fiction Department,

She doesn’t look much like a victim at any point in her life, even when things aren’t going so well.

And perhaps one fault with Spurling’s narrative is that in reclaiming Sonia’s reputation from where Orwell’s biographers have left it, she sails close to making her subject appear to be one.

You can purchase a copy of this book from an independent bookseller local to you via this affiliate link. I may earn a small commission if you do. Thanks! 

Three different books that delve into the interwar literary life of women in London. Have you read any of these books or are you planning to? And have you read any different nonfiction books on similar topics? Let me know in the comments!

Nonfiction November 2020


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7 comments

booker talk 21 November 2020 - 2:22 am

What an interesting topic. I’m especially drawn to the life of Orwell’s wife – I do like the books that give voices to people who were shadows behind more famous people

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J. C. Greenway 21 November 2020 - 7:40 pm

Yes, me too! I was going to add Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway to this list too and then I remembered it was a novel, not nonfiction. I think sometimes our image of writers is that it is a solitary endeavour, but there is a team of people around making everything possible. It was enlightening to have the spotlight moved onto them.

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Liz Dexter 23 November 2020 - 1:53 am

I have Square Haunting TBR and am very much looking forward to it. There’s A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman, too.

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J. C. Greenway 27 November 2020 - 8:21 pm

Thank you, I hadn’t heard of that one and am always glad to discover new ones from Persephone. Hope you enjoy Square Haunting!

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Katie @ Doing Dewey 23 November 2020 - 8:42 am

What a fascinating topic, especially the narrow time period! Square Haunting sounds particularly interesting to me, since it covers slightly broader ground and because I’m interested to see the connections between all these great writers.

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J. C. Greenway 27 November 2020 - 8:27 pm

Square Haunting is great, so well researched and entertainingly written. Sometimes the connections are fleeting, other times a lot more, but definitely gives a feel for the life of a writer at that time!

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Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out 26 November 2020 - 2:29 am

An interesting topic, thanks for sharing your recommendations

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