Francesca Wade’s beautiful new book tells the story of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, home to various activists, experimental writers and revolutionaries between the wars, among them Virginia Woolf and Dorothy L. Sayers. In the extract below, Wade delves into the life of the pioneering classicist Jane Harrison
One summer’s day in 1909, a strange entourage arrived in Grantchester, outside Cambridge, and set up camp in a field. The caravan was parked and the carthorse tethered; washing lines were erected and straw laid down for children’s bedding. Augustus John, the charismatic Fitzrovia artist, had come to Newnham College to paint a portrait of Jane Ellen Harrison, the famous classics don. ‘All the talk here is about John,’ wrote John Maynard Keynes to Duncan Grant. ‘According to Rupert [Brooke] he spends most of his time in Cambridge public houses, and has had a drunken brawl in the streets smashing in the face of his opponent.’
Yet if John caused consternation among most whose paths he crossed that month, he won the affection of his subject. Writing to her friend Ruth Darwin, Harrison concluded that John ‘seems to me to have a real vision of “the beauty of ugliness” . . . character, I suppose it would ordinarily be called, that comes into all faces however “plain” that belong to people who have lived hard, and that in the nature of things is found in scarcely any young face.’ John later described her as ‘a very charming person tho’ a puzzle to paint’: his portrait is the first of many people’s attempts to solve the enigma of Jane Harrison’s life, or to capture its ambiguities.
Dorothy L. Sayers and H. D. came to Mecklenburgh Square as young women, hoping that long and exciting careers lay ahead of them. But Jane Harrison arrived there aged seventy-five, having renounced her comfortable life as a Cambridge don and destroyed all traces of her previous existence: she was not beginning her life in the square, but enacting a rebirth no less urgent for coming so late. She died, aged seventy-seven, in her home at 11 Mecklenburgh Street – just off the main square – on 15 April 1928. The guest list for her memorial service, planned by Hope Mirrlees, who had spent the past decade living with Harrison, is testament to the rich variety of Harrison’s friendships, and especially those of her final years: professors of Greek mingled warily with mournful Russian poets; publishers and Bloomsburyites with distant Yorkshire relatives; eminent European philosophers with the doctors and nurses who had tended her devotedly through her long illness. Leonard and Virginia Woolf arrived late, shuffling into the chapel just as the readings ended. In her diary, Virginia recorded her bemusement at the choices, feeling that the service belied the complexity of Harrison’s own thinking about religion. ‘Who is “God” & what the Grace of Christ? & what did they mean to Jane?’
Hope Mirrlees spent the remaining months of her tenure in the house they had shared on Mecklenburgh Street attempting to control the way Harrison’s memory would be preserved. Over the next three decades she worked on a biography, which never materialised: whether this was a loyal act of discretion, or a severe case of writer’s block, is impossible to know for sure. ‘The problem of what to say and what to leave out is a very difficult one,’ she wrote apologetically to Jessie Stewart, another former pupil of Harrison’s, who had reproached her for her reticence. ‘Jane was extremely reserved about her own past. She had weathered a great many storms, and I think wanted them to be forgotten – in fact, I feel almost certain that she did. And yet if one omits them, the life loses what she would have called its “pattern”.’ Yet Harrison’s life had no single ‘pattern’: those who knew her in separate periods each remembered, and felt possessive of, a very different character, which they wholeheartedly believed to be the ‘true’ Jane. In March 1950, Gilbert Murray wrote to Stewart about a lecture given by the Russian writer Prince Dmitry Petrovich Svyatopolk-Mirsky, who had known Harrison well at the end of her life. ‘I thought it very clever but, to speak frankly, I did not really like it. I do not like to have Jane mixed up with Freud and Joyce, nor even with Communism . . . Of course Mirsky knew a side of her which I perhaps did not but I think he runs his own ideas too hard.’ Murray had been very close to Harrison in the years she spent teaching classics at Newnham between 1898 and 1922. His anxiety to decry Mirsky’s version of Harrison – as a true radical and a distinctly modern thinker – betrays a certain bewilderment at how deliberately her interests and way of life had shifted when she left Cambridge, aged seventy-two, to spend the last six years of her life among a community of Russian political exiles in Paris and Bloomsbury, burning all her papers, including Murray’s letters to her, before she went. ‘I never understood what happened at the end of her life,’ wrote Murray to Stewart. ‘Did Newnham refuse to continue her Fellowship, and was she greatly hurt? Or did she, for other reasons, determine to leave Cambridge and Greek and her old associations? And what part did Hope play in it?’
Extract from Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London between the Wars by Francesa Wade (Faber, £20). Buy a copy here.