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June 2020 Issue [Reviews]

Splinters and Mosaics

On women’s history and group biography
Portrait of Anne Sexton, by Barbara Swan © The Estate of Barbara Swan. Courtesy Alpha Gallery, Boston

Portrait of Anne Sexton, by Barbara Swan © The Estate of Barbara Swan. Courtesy Alpha Gallery, Boston


Splinters and Mosaics

On women’s history and group biography

Discussed in this essay:

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade. Tim Duggan Books. 432 pages. $28.99.

The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s, by Maggie Doherty. Knopf. 400 pages. $29.95.

In 1928, Virginia Woolf was a successful writer from a well-to-do family with a doting husband. Yet even a woman with her advantages faced countless obstacles in pursuing an intellectual life. While strolling across the peaceful lawns at Cambridge University, lost in thought, she might be interrupted by an official reminding her that only men were allowed to walk on the grass. If she tried to enter the library unaccompanied, the door would be barred. Retreating to the women’s college, she would be greeted by a dinner of plain beef and sprouts, with prunes for dessert, while the male scholars were fortified by sole and partridges and bottomless goblets of wine.

What it came down to, Woolf realized, was money. The men’s colleges, which featured well-stocked libraries, laboratories lined with expensive instruments, and congenial sitting rooms outfitted with cushy armchairs, were generously endowed; the women’s were not. “What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us?” she asks in A Room of One’s Own, her book-length essay about the realities of artistic production for women, which originated as two lectures given at a Cambridge women’s college. We know the answer: they were bearing and raising children, keeping house, supporting the men whose portraits adorned the paneled rooms of the men’s colleges. “Why did men drink wine and women water?” Woolf writes. “Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?” And the ultimate question, a more existential one: “What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”

The book’s title is thought to be Woolf’s answer: to write fiction, a woman needs “money and a room of her own”—in other words, material support and protection from mental and physical intrusions. But while those conditions are necessary, Woolf argues, they are not sufficient to enable women writers and artists to overcome centuries of indifference, discouragement, hostility, and neglect. Since historians have always focused on the lives of “great men,” women are disadvantaged by the lack of a comprehensive narrative of their own intellectual history. Realizing how little she knows about how women lived in the past, Woolf bemoans “the accumulation of unrecorded life.” And without the stories of our foremothers, women have no models to follow. “Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common,” Woolf writes. As women, “we think back through our mothers.”

Nearly a century has passed since Woolf formulated these ideas, and a revolution has taken place in women’s intellectual life. Cambridge began granting degrees to women in 1948; by 2005, women made up nearly 50 percent of its graduates. In the United States, women constitute 49 percent of university professors (although they occupy only 38 percent of tenured positions). VIDA and other organizations have drawn attention to the underrepresentation of women in journalism, and many publications have responded with an effort to increase women’s bylines. Especially as far as political representation is concerned—not to mention representation for women of color—there remains a long way to go. But the systemic, persistent, soul-crushing inequality Woolf described has in many ways been remedied.

Slower to change has been the writing of women’s history, especially biography. With women’s lives “all but absent from history,” Woolf imagined the fate of “Judith Shakespeare,” who might have been the playwright’s brilliant, unacknowledged sister. In 1970, Nancy Milford published Zelda, her groundbreaking biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, which made a case for the creative genius of its subject and charged her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, with appropriating her life in his novels. Others followed: Jean Strouse’s Alice James (a biography of Henry James’s sister), Blanche Wiesen Cook’s multi-volume life of Eleanor Roosevelt, Stacy Schiff’s Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). Yet these books, and others, important as they are, still frame women in the context of their relationship to famous men; theirs are, as the writer Diane Johnson called them, “lesser lives.” As a critic and biographer, I have often heard that editors are reluctant to publish full-length biographies of women, regardless of their accomplishments, unless they are already household names—a bitter catch-22.

In Square Haunting and The Equivalents, two rich and powerful new books, the critics Francesca Wade and Maggie Doherty respond to Woolf’s call to rewrite intellectual history by writing women’s history. Both books constitute what is sometimes called group biography, selecting a cohort of subjects with something in common—for Wade, a physical address; for Doherty, early participation in the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study—and interweaving their stories. And they both offer a strong defense of the genre, which is sometimes seen as a consolation prize for figures who don’t merit a full biography. By telling the stories of women scholars and artists—stories about research and creative work, but also about marriage and partnership and female friendship—in a way that emphasizes the social and communal force of their subjects’ lives, Wade and Doherty suggest that the classic cradle-to-grave treatment applied to men is not always appropriate for women’s narratives: not because they aren’t interesting enough to deserve it, but because it can’t adequately represent the profound and inextricable networks in which women work and live.

A page from a scrapbook belonging to Hilda Doolittle. Courtesy the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, Connecticut © 2020 The Schaffner Family Foundation. Used with permission

Wade organizes Square Haunting around a geographical focal point: Mecklenburgh Square, a “radical address” in the Bloomsbury district of London where the five writers she examines all spent a crucial period of their lives. In addition to Woolf, the book follows H.D. (the pen name of Hilda Doolittle), poet; Dorothy L. Sayers, mystery novelist; Jane Ellen Harrison, classicist; and Eileen Power, historian. This organizing principle is not as idiosyncratic as it may initially appear. Wade’s subjects lived in the square at different times, for different durations, and rarely crossed paths, if at all. But each of them settled there in search of a living situation that would support her intellectual autonomy. What they strived for, Wade writes, was

everything Woolf had urged women writers to pursue: a room of their own, both literal and symbolic; a domestic arrangement which would help them to live, work, love, and write as they desired.

Noticing the congruences, Wade realized that Mecklenburgh Square itself “might hold within its history a female tradition of exactly the sort Woolf was looking for.”

Most of Wade’s subjects were born toward the end of the Victorian era, a period that saw enormous change in English society. Traditionally, the man of the house had a personal study, private and inviolate; the woman’s arena was the drawing room, where she received guests and conducted family life. But a growing population imbalance of “surplus women,” starting in the mid-nineteenth century and peaking after World War I, created new opportunities for women’s education and employment outside the home. In 1909, occupancy rules changed to permit houses in Mecklenburgh Square and elsewhere to be zoned for boarders, allowing women to live more easily either on their own or with a friend or colleague, with meals and housekeeping provided by a landlady.

The choices a woman made in her personal life—whether to marry, and, if she did, how to negotiate the demands of a relationship—were the most crucial factors in determining whether she would be able to carry out her intellectual pursuits. All of Wade’s subjects managed to configure a functional partnership, at least temporarily. When H.D., a gifted American poet who was initially associated (against her wishes) with Ezra Pound’s Imagist movement, married Richard Aldington, a fellow poet and classicist six years her junior, both imagined they could create an unconventional relationship of equals. But after World War I broke out, Aldington began an affair with a woman who was subletting a garret room in the same boardinghouse; eventually, H.D. surrendered the marital apartment and retreated upstairs. She escaped this domestic arrangement when her friend Cecil Gray invited her to stay with him in Cornwall; after she became pregnant with his child, he abandoned her.

In those days, pregnancy was a disaster for an unmarried woman without support. When Dorothy Sayers became pregnant by a married man who flitted from affair to affair, his wife, unexpectedly and generously, arranged for her prenatal and maternity care—an incredible story of a woman helping another woman through intolerable circumstances. H.D. was even more fortunate in meeting Annie Winifred Ellerman, an American heiress and poetry lover who went by the single name Bryher. After H.D.’s daughter, Frances Perdita, was born in March 1919, Bryher took care of H.D. through the postpartum period and supported the baby during her first two years at a nearby nursery. From 1921, Wade writes, Perdita lived with the two women (whose open relationship would last for forty years) in “a loving ménage structured around H.D.’s work.” Perdita would remember Bryher whisking her away from the study door as H.D. prepared to write; she was taught from an early age not to disturb her mother at work. (How many contemporary mother-writers enjoy such freedom?) H.D. spent those years writing a series of autobiographical novels in which she worked through the humiliations of her marriage and created herself anew as an artist. Like the other women whose stories Wade tells, H.D. realized that “real freedom entails the ability to live on one’s own terms.”

Jane Ellen Harrison, who did brilliantly original work in myth and ritual studies, also found peace and support in a domestic relationship with a woman—but not until late in life. With an early reputation as “the cleverest woman in England,” she won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, but for decades was passed over for prestigious teaching posts. Not until Harrison was nearly fifty did she return to the university on a fellowship. Over the next twenty years, she published a series of books that demonstrated the central place of women—“possessed, magical, and dangerous to handle”—in ancient rites. Woolf, Pound, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence were among those inspired by her work. As her readers recognized, Harrison’s rewriting of classical history amounted to a powerful challenge to patriarchy that revealed the shallowness of its roots. Even her choice of ancient Greek as a subject—studying “a ‘dead’ language for sheer love of the beauty of its words,” as she put it—was revolutionary, considering that women’s education for so long was based on its practical application to the life of a wife and mother.

Like H.D. and Sayers, Harrison suffered romantic disappointments: an unrequited love, an engagement to a man who died suddenly. “Marriage, for a woman at least, hampers the two things that made life to me glorious—friendship and learning,” she wrote in her autobiography. But in her seventies, she met Hope Mirrlees, a student thirty-seven years her junior, and the two began a partnership that lasted until Harrison’s death. Wade is vague on the particularities of their relationship, noting that in those years the language to describe lesbianism barely existed. In 1921, the British Parliament debated criminalizing it (along with male homosexuality), but, Wade writes, “the question was shelved on the basis that women might not have considered the concept and it was preferable not to put ideas in their heads.” Whatever the specifics, not long after they met, Harrison left Cambridge, angered by the university’s refusal to grant degrees to women. The pair spent three years living in Paris, where they studied Russian and befriended a community of Russian exiles. Back in London, they moved into a “queer little house” just off the square, on Mecklenburgh Street, where Harrison wrote her final work, The Book of the Bear, a study of totemism in Russian folktales. When Harrison died, at seventy-seven, Woolf—an admirer of Harrison who alluded to her in A Room of One’s Own—sent Mirrlees a one-line condolence note: “But remember what you have had.”

In one of the odder details in her book, Wade writes that Harrison and Mirrlees spun elaborate fantasies around a teddy bear that they used as a surrogate in conversations. Such personal nuggets are rare. A minor disappointment of the biography is that while Wade discusses her subjects’ work lovingly and comprehensively, their personalities sometimes remain elusive. It’s not entirely her fault: Harrison burned her personal papers. Also destroyed were those of Eileen Power, a lecturer at the London School of Economics who wrote about daily life in medieval Europe. Like Harrison, Wade writes, Power was motivated

by a strong desire to change the common conception of history as “the biographies of great men,” and to shatter the assumption that “to speak of ordinary people [was] beneath the dignity of history.”

The scraps of Power’s daily life that remain—such as an invitation to a party that promises “Dancing in the kitchen” and specifies “morning dress”—provoke a desire for more.

“We’re splinters and mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes,” wrote Woolf in one of her many reflections on biography. She moved to Mecklenburgh Square just as World War II broke out, and fled in October 1940, as bombs rained down around her. Nonetheless, it was a productive year: she finished her biography of her friend Roger Fry, a painter and curator; wrote Between the Acts, her final novel; and made notes for a memoir as well as a study of English literature that she never completed. She could do all this in part thanks to her marriage, a uniquely secure and stable arrangement that she was able to configure around her needs. When Leonard Woolf proposed, she told him that they needed a new sort of marriage, in which she could “find my own way. . . . We both of us want a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always alive, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are.” She was not physically attracted to Leonard—her most intimate relationship seems to have been with the writer and garden designer Vita Sackville-West—but she came to love their shared life and deep mutual trust. She and Leonard worked together on the Hogarth Press, their small publishing house; he kept a careful watch on her mental health and alerted her doctors when he felt she was in danger. In her suicide note to him, Woolf wrote, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”

Tillie Olsen (second from left) at a Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study meeting. Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

During her Mecklenburgh Square period, Woolf imagined writing a new kind of literary study. She would go through the history of English literature “like a string through cheese,” her aim “to find the end of a ball of string and wind out. . . . Pass from criticism to biography. Lives of people. Always follow the genuine scent—the idea of the moment.” Maggie Doherty follows Woolf’s model in The Equivalents, which tells of the creation of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study in 1960—a center for continued learning run out of Radcliffe College—and its impact on the lives of five women who were early fellows: writers Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, and Tillie Olsen; painter Barbara Swan; and sculptor Marianna Pineda. (The application required the women to have either a doctorate or “the equivalent” in creative achievement; the women Doherty chronicles took to calling themselves “the Equivalents,” since none had higher degrees.) Again, this is a convenient structure but not a random one. The period at the Institute was life-changing for each of these women, a time of intense artistic ferment.

In midcentury America, married women of a certain class were “intellectually displaced,” as a 1960 article in the New York Times describing the Institute’s creation put it. They had been encouraged to go to college—likely at a Seven Sisters school—and perhaps even to work briefly, but after marriage social pressures induced them to stay home with their children. An article published in this magazine in 1962 described the American woman as

not very different from her mother or grandmother . . . equally attached to the classic feminine values—sexual attractiveness, motherly devotion, and the nurturing role in home and community affairs. She is no great figure in public life or the professions.

Doherty poignantly imagines what the reality might have been like for such a woman:

You have the perfect life: you have the high-earning husband, the rosy-cheeked children, and the Buick in the driveway. But something isn’t right. Household tasks don’t hold your attention; you snarl at your children instead of blanketing them with smiles. . . . Everything and everyone confirm that it’s just as you suspected: the problem is you. You’re oversexed, you’re undersexed, you’re overeducated, you’re unintelligent. You need to have your head shrunk; you need to take more sleeping pills. You ought to become a better cook—all those fancy new kitchen appliances!—and in the meantime be content and grateful with what you have. The cultural pressure of the 1950s was so intense that women, in order to survive, killed off the parts of themselves that couldn’t conform.

Thanks to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, this ennui is now familiar. But, as Doherty points out, the groundwork for second-wave feminism was laid earlier, by women like those at the Institute, who were dissatisfied with their lives and found ways to use their intellect. Before she started writing poetry, Sexton felt like “a caged tiger,” pacing from room to room trying to burn off her “terrible energy.” Kumin, who had been told by Wallace Stegner, her college poetry instructor, that she had no talent, wrote light verse for magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post, the latter of which required her husband to submit a letter signed by his employer testifying that Kumin’s poem was her own work. Sexton and Kumin met in a workshop at Boston University and became best friends, reading their poetry to each other over the phone and supervising their children while passing a typewriter back and forth. (In addition to their poetry, they collaborated on several children’s books.) When they read the New York Times article about the Institute, both applied immediately. “I feel that I am already an accomplished poet,” Sexton wrote in her application. “What I ask now is for the opportunity to be a lasting one.”

Radcliffe president Mary Ingraham Bunting, a scientist and the mother of four children, believed that most American women wanted to find a way to combine intellectual work and family life. To do so, they needed a space to work and the money to allow them to do it, terms Woolf had laid out thirty years earlier. A yellow-gabled house on Mount Auburn Street would supply twenty-four women with offices; each would receive a stipend of up to $3,000 a year (nearly $25,000 today), sometimes more. The money wasn’t enough to live on; it was meant as a replacement for part-time employment, and assumed the presence of another wage earner in the family. Not surprisingly, almost all the women spent their stipends on household help. Swan bought a dishwasher; others hired housekeepers or babysitters. Lily Macrakis, a historian, spent some of her money on parking tickets—she was reluctant to leave the library long enough to feed the meter.

In addition to privacy, these women found camaraderie, support, and intellectual exchange at the Institute—often for the first time in their lives. Swan and Sexton were inspired by images in each other’s work. The Equivalents shared books by writers they admired, creating an unofficial female canon, which included poets like Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Olsen’s teenage daughter, who often visited the yellow house on Mount Auburn Street, later remembered the feeling of “electricity rippling between rooms.”

That electricity is palpable in Doherty’s pages. I have rarely, if ever, read a work of non-fiction that chronicled relationships like these, with women in conversation about everything except men. Even Sylvia Plath appears without Ted Hughes, befriending Sexton at a poetry seminar in Boston. There were moments when I wanted to know more about the rest of their lives—the troubles in Sexton’s marriage, including her multiple affairs, are mentioned only in passing. But I understood, also, why Doherty focuses so tightly on the Institute. Her book is a love story about art and female friendship.

Women seated in front of Aspect of the Oracle: Portentous, a sculpture by Marianna Pineda. Photograph by Lilian Kemp. Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

The first time I had a room of my own after marriage, I was nearly thirty-five, struggling to make progress on a book past its deadline. I had been accepted to Yaddo for a two-week residency—the longest I could manage to be away from my young children. As a staff member showed me to my room, tears came to my eyes. After years of tending to others’ needs, it was incredible to come to a place where everything was arranged to support my work. Doherty writes that she discovered the story of the Equivalents while finishing her PhD at Harvard and “dating a man whose career took precedence over my own.” Macrakis, the historian, used to tell her undergraduates not to get married right out of college: “You never know if your husband will allow you to do certain things you want to do . . . so you better be free.”

Did anyone ever tell me that? Even if they had, I wouldn’t have believed that my husband, whoever he might turn out to be, would have the right to “allow” me to do anything. I was the child of a second-wave feminist, brought up to think that I could have any career I wanted. Yet after having children, I discovered that the old gender norms weren’t dead, just dormant. With a lot of pain, I eventually found my way to an arrangement that allowed me to do the work I wanted and needed to do. Because women still don’t know our own history, I didn’t realize then that I was far from unusual in being unable to find intellectual space in a traditional marriage. Before the coronavirus pandemic prodded many of us back into contact with old friends, reading these two books prompted me to reach out to half a dozen women I hadn’t spoken to recently, asking them about their relationships, their ideas. We have only just begun to understand how important are the stories of how women live.

Doherty’s subjects laughed and quarreled and drank together, exchanging ideas and sympathy. Listening to tapes of their lectures, with the clinking of sherry glasses and rustling of skirts, she felt she had “discovered a lost world, one that was oddly familiar.” The women in Wade’s book existed in a community that was largely imagined; the exchange of a few words, a letter at most, was as far as their contact went. But even an imagined community has power. Wade writes that her research reminded her

how knowledge of the past can fortify us in the present: how finding unexpected resonances of feeling and experience, across time and place, can extend a validating sense of solidarity.

I consumed both Wade and Doherty’s books at a furious speed, scrawling notes in the margins with greater-than-usual intensity, pausing occasionally to let the ideas sink in. The urgency with which their subjects—ten between them, extending across more than a century—negotiated the demands of intellect and life is timeless. Women must undertake that project anew in each generation because the social structures to support it do not exist. We are still trying to figure it out.

 is the author, most recently, of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright), which won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle award for biography. Her most recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Salka the Salonnière,” appeared in the January 2020 issue.

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