Power, con gusto

From Square Haunting (2020), by Francesca Wade:

“…Throughout her eighteen years in Mecklenburgh Square, (Eileen) Power balanced her desire to live untrammelled by social expectations with a wider commitment that the same privilege be extended to people of all races, nations and classes. And the strength of her ideals was not unnoticed by those around her, who looked to her as a role model. Judith de Márffy-Mantuano was a student at the LSE from 1926 to 1929, having arrived alone from Hungary and looked up the school in the telephone book; her parents, though extremely wealthy, had given her no allowance for her studies, considering them a waste of time, so Power (her tutor) took her in when she couldn’t afford a flat of her own. ‘At her house in 20 Mecklenburgh Square,’ Judith wrote later, ‘I began to make out – like a skyline breaking through a lifting fog – the shape of another world … It was a world in which men and women did not belong to classes, but were individuals, and succeeded each according to his merit. Eileen Power herself exemplified for me the possibilities open to women.’…

…At the LSE, women students and lecturers were not segregated, but worked alongside their male counterparts as equals; Power took her place in a modern, metropolitan university established on egalitarian principles, and joined a ready-made circle of progressive thinkers eager to include her in their plans. Power entered London social life with gusto, frequenting restaurants and jazz clubs, attending clandestine political confabulations in hotel basements and rallies in the parks. Her regular ‘kitchen dances’ at 2o Mecklenburgh Square were attended by economists, politicians and novelists, including Virginia Woolf, who recalled sharing a packet of chocolate creams there with the civil servant Humbert Wolfe…

…Number 20 Mecklenburgh Square was arranged on very different lines. Power shared its two floors casually with friends – Marion Beard stayed until 1937, while Power’s sister Rhoda joined the pair in 1929. Power set up a desk by the window, where neighbours often saw her working late at night, and decorated her quarters lavishly with the ornaments she’d bought in China and knick-knacks found in Parisian ‘curiosity shops’. Her bookshelves reflected her eclectic tastes – J. H. Clapham recalled that she had ‘scores of books of poetry to one Principles of Economics’ – and each room was decked with fresh flowers and throws in Jacobean patterns. ‘I never realised before how one’s material surroundings could affect one’s spirits,’ she wrote, ‘and what a difference to one’s state of mind could be made by a merrily served meal.’

Merrily served, for Power was reluctant to curtail her new-found freedom by taking on the burden of domestic chores. When she took 20 Mecklenburgh Square in January 1922, she ‘snatched back’ Jessie, the ‘admired and much-loved’ woman who had kept house for Eileen and Karin Costello when they shared a flat in Victoria while Power was a student at the LSE. Jessie, wrote Power, ‘looked after me like a mother’; she was devastated when Jessie died, after a short illness, in August 1923. ‘We had been friends for 15 years,’ she told (George) Coulton. ‘I cannot imagine what I shall do without her. She was the old type of family servant & a real friend.’ At this point Power hired Mrs Saville, by all accounts an extremely devoted housekeeper, who remained with her at Mecklenburgh Square for the rest of Power’s life. Mrs Saville catered Power’s dinner parties, which were renowned for exquisite food and choice wines. (Power herself once refused to host a friend on the grounds that ‘I’ve lent my housekeeper to my next-door neighbour for a dinner party that night & if I cooked I should poison you’.) It’s poignant that these women became mother-figures to Power, who had lost her own mother at such a formative age; it’s also interesting that, despite the evident imbalance of power, she considered them genuine friends, an integral part of the supportive community of women she gathered around her in her home. Power was conscious that their work enabled hers, and was certainly grateful for it…

…When Power’s friend Karin Costello became engaged to Virginia Woolf’s brother Adrian Stephen in 1914, Power wrote to Margery (Spring Rice) to complain that she considered ‘all those Bloomsberries as unsatisfactory folk w. whom to have permanent relationships’. She eventually came round to Adrian – and dined with his sister on at least two occasions – but Power was always determined to define herself in opposition to what she thought of as stereotypical ‘Bloomsbury’. Likewise, (Harry) Tawney’s wife, Jeanette (the sister of William Beveridge), insisted that on moving to Mecklenburgh Square they had ‘hankered after the geographical Bloomsbury, not the mental attitude; Tawney, more bluntly, called the Bloomsbury set ‘a mental disease’. These judgements were, at least in part, made for rhetorical effect – Leonard Woolf collaborated with Tawney on a petition for miners’ rights after the General Strike of 1926, when Mecklenburgh Square became an unofficial distribution ground of the Labour strike paper The British Worker, while the Tawneys knew that the Hogarth Press had demonstrated a commitment to working-class and socialist writing. But Power was never interested in artistic bohemianism for its own sake; she was impatient with philosophical posturing or self-indulgent introspection of the sort the Bloomsbury Group’s famous Memoir Club went in for, and preferred her gatherings to centre on action, not aesthetics. The activities of her Bloomsbury group were focused on concrete solutions to social injustice; here, discussions ranged from nationalism to nationalisation, with occasional excursions into Freudian psychoanalysis, modern painting and the novels of D. H. Lawrence.

Tawney rented four different houses in Mecklenburgh Square over the decades, but during the time Power knew him he was living at number 44, the former home of H. D. and Dorothy L. Sayers.

In contrast to Power’s elegant decoration, Tawney’s tables were invisible beneath piles of books, tobacco residue and old cheese sandwiches, while he worked hunched over his desk or supine on his window seat, wrapped in his moth-eaten sergeant’s tunic from the First World War. To his chaotic study – once described by an Observer interviewer as ‘a compost-heap’ – came a regular trail of visitors, from LSE students to miners, Cabinet ministers to cotton workers, all hounded on entry by Jeanette’s band of lame dogs and Harry’s rival troupe of cats. This was a time when close relationships existed between political leaders, journalists, theorists and writers, when gatherings in kitchens and drawing rooms could hope to change society as effectively as debates in the House of Commons. Power and Tawney were determined to make Mecklenburgh Square a place where their students could join them for open discussions of urgent economic questions, putting their studies into action…

…Mecklenburgh Square remained a place of professional decorum, where Power worked and hosted friends in her public persona: her relationship was conducted in Postan’s flat at 6C Willow Road in Hampstead (the next street to Christchurch Place, where H. D. and Aldington had lived in the first years of their marriage) and in what Postan called a ‘funk-hole’ in the Cotswolds, rented for clandestine weekend getaways. But at the end of 1937, they decided to eliminate all need for secrecy. On I December, when Power was forty-eight and Postan thirty-nine, they very quietly married at the St Pancras Registry Office, with two friends and Power’s sisters in attendance, before returning together to 20 Mecklenburgh Square…”

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