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The Power Women of Mecklenburgh Square

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In July 1918, she met Annie Winifred Ellerman, the daughter of a shipping magnate alleged to be England’s richest man. Ellerman soon changed her name to Bryher (after one of the Isles of Scilly) in order to publish her fiction anonymously and “to escape ready identification with a single gender.” She also married twice, the second time to the novelist Kenneth Macpherson, who too fell in love with H.D. Bryher and Macpherson adopted H.D.’s daughter, Perdita, and their communal life enabled the poet to combine “motherhood and creative work,” to her satisfaction.

After H.D. left London for Cornwall in 1920, Dorothy Sayers moved into her former apartment on the square. She arrived shortly after her official graduation from Somerville College, Oxford, with a First in modern languages, and five years after she had completed her studies — 1920 being the first year Oxford acknowledged women graduates. Vera Brittain, in her book “The Women at Oxford” (1960), called Sayers the Somerville graduate who “made the most lasting impression on her contemporaries and on the outside world.” Brilliant, musical and interested in theology, Sayers astonished her classmates when she became a professional writer of detective stories. But her books, featuring her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, were immediately celebrated — “renowned,” Brittain wrote, “as the kind that great minds use for relaxation.” Wade’s portrait of Sayers, one of England’s most private writers, perceptively illuminates her fierce independence, her complicated relationships and her often grotesque novelistic imagination.

Like Sayers, Eileen Power remains too little known, even by those who have benefited from her splendid scholarship on medieval women. Wade writes that in 1920, while a lecturer at Cambridge, Power received a travel fellowship funded by Albert Kahn, whom she described as “an enlightened French banker who gave you 1,000 pounds and sent you round the world with instructions to widen your narrow academic mind.”

At 31, Power traveled alone to Egypt, India, China, Japan and North America. Already a pacifist and member of the Labour Party, she was delighted to meet with Gandhi as well as politicians and anticolonial activists. From Delhi, she traveled north along the Silk Road to the Khyber Pass, which was closed to women by British law. Power, Wade reports, “made the crossing in male disguise.”

While abroad, she read in The Times of India “the perfectly disgusting news” (Power’s words) that Cambridge had refused to follow Oxford’s example of admitting women to full membership in the university. She was subsequently pleased to be invited to join the faculty of the London School of Economics, an appointment that prompted her move to Mecklenburgh Square.


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