Author and critic Dame Rebecca West was born on this day in 1892. At the age of ten, she lived with her mother and sisters at 2 Hope Park Square for a short time (Glendinning 1987; Palusci 1992) before moving to Buccleuch Place to attend George Watson’s Ladies College (Lownie 2005). This tenement is now IASH’s main entrance.
Hope Park Square appears in her 1922 novel The Judge, renamed Hume Park Square, and home to her teenage heroine Ellen Melville, described as a “sturdy, rufous thing, a terrier-tiger”. In her contribution to the Dangerous Women Project, Faith Pullin situates West as a “dangerously honest and unconventional writer”, noting of The Judge that it “made the case for unmarried mothers, as well as placing the issues of rape, illegitimacy and motherhood in the context of the suffrage struggle” (Pullin 2016). West’s memories of poverty in the area strongly inflect her rendering of the tenements:
…he began to feel anxiety because of the squalor of the district. This must be a mews, for there were sodden shreds of straw on the cobblestones, and surely that was the thud of sleeping horses' hooves that sounded like the blows of soft hammers on soft anvils behind the high wooden doors. If she lived near here she must be very poor. But without embarrassment she turned to him in the shadow of a brick wall surmounted by broken hoarding and pointed down a paved entry to a dark archway pierced in what seemed, by the light that shone from a candle stuck in a bottle at an uncurtained window, to be a very mean little house. "The Square's through here," she said. "Come away in and I'll find you a membership form for the Men's League...."
Beyond the archway lay the queerest place. It was a little box-like square, hardly forty paces across, on three sides of which small squat houses sat closely with a quarrelling air, as if each had to broaden its shoulders and press out its elbows for fear of being squeezed out by its neighbours and knocked backwards into the mews. They sent out in front of them the slimmest slices of garden which left room for nothing but a paved walk from the entry and a fenced bed in the middle, where a lamp-post stood among some leggy laurels, which the rain was shaking as a terrier shakes a rat. Huddled houses and winking lamp and agued bushes, all seemed alive and second cousins to the goblins. On the fourth side were railings that evidently gave upon some sort of public park, for beyond them very tall trees which had not been stunted by garden soil sent up interminable stains on the white darkness, and beneath their drippings paced a policeman, a black figure walking with that appearance of moping stoicism that policemen wear at night. He, too, participated in the fantasy of the place, for it seemed possible that he had never arrested anybody and never would; that his sole business was to keep away bad dreams from the little people who were sleeping in these little houses. They were probably poor little people, for poverty keeps early hours, and in all the square there was but one lighted window. And that he perceived, as he got his bearings, was in the house to which Ellen was leading him down the narrowest garden he had ever seen, a mere cheese straw of grass and gravel. It was a corner house, and of all the houses in the square it looked the most put upon, the most relentlessly squeezed by its neighbours; yet Ellen opened the door and invited him in with something of an air.
Hope Park Square has certainly changed over the years, and now enjoys views of the Meadows tennis courts as well as a wider vista including the Pentland Hills. West's "leggy laurels" have been replaced by trees laden with blossom in the spring, although the "winking lamp" remains. On rainy winter evenings, it is perhaps still possible to imagine the square as it was in 1902 when West lived here.
Victoria Glendinning, 1987. Rebecca West: a life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Andrew Lownie, 2005. The Edinburgh Literary Companion. Edinburgh: Polygon.
Oriana Palusci, 1992. La Città delle donne: immaginario urbano e letteratura del Novecento. Turin: Tirrenia-Stampatori.
Faith Pullen, 2016. A dangerously honest and unconventional writer [web]. The Dangerous Women Project. Available at: http://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/03/27/720/
Rebecca West, 1922. The Judge. New York, NY: George H. Doran Co.
Thanks to Honorary Fellow Prof. Karina Williamson for the detective work.