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Originally published Friday, September 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Mrs. Woolf and the Servants": The author's complex relationship with her maids

In "Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury," historian Alison Light argues persuasively that Woolf's complicated relationships with her household staff, tied up in issues of class snobbery and dependency, reveal a great deal about the writer specifically, and about British social history in general.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury"

by Alison Light

Bloomsbury Press, 376 pp., $30

"Here is a fine rubbish heap left by our parents to be swept," wrote Virginia Woolf in her diary in 1929. She was speaking of what was known as "the servant problem" — the way her generation (Woolf was born in 1882 London) disdained the traditional role of moral guardian of her home's hired help, yet still had need for someone to live in close proximity to do tasks the upper classes declined to do.

"It is an absurdity, how much time L.[eonard] and I have wasted in talking about servants," Woolf wrote, in that same passage. "And it can never be done with because the fault lies in the system. How can an uneducated woman let herself in, alone, into our lives? What happens is that she becomes a mongrel; and has no roots anywhere. I could put my theory into practice by getting a daily of a civilised kind, who had her baby in Kentish Town; and treated me as an employer, not friend."

Historian Alison Light's fascinating "Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury" does something that by all rights should be impossible: The book finds a fresh angle on a life so well-documented it should by all rights be threadbare.

Light argues persuasively that Woolf's complicated relationships with her household staff, tied up in issues of class snobbery and dependency, reveal a great deal about the writer specifically, and about British social history in general.

"The independent life of the mind," notes Light, "nonetheless needed someone to care for the body." The tasks of a live-in maid or "cook-general" (the replacement term for the old-fashioned "maid of all work"), in Woolf's relatively modest home in the 1920s, included "cleaning and dusting, the bed-making and the fire-lighting, clearing and washing up, some washing [laundry] (without detergents, of course) ... And there was all the cooking." Stoves had to be tended constantly to keep the heat regulated; doorbells answered; errands run.

Though Woolf often wrote of her utopian visions for a society with no need for servants, the fact was she did have need of them: Her genteel upbringing left her with few domestic abilities and a disinclination to learn them. Her servants, living in close proximity and yet never equals, became major figures in her life, popping in and out of her diaries and letters like family.

Light notes how the relationship mirrored that of mother and child, with mistress and servant constantly switching roles: "Mrs. Woolf gave the orders but Nellie brought Virginia her milk or supper on a tray, ran her bath for her and washed her chemises."

But little has been written about them until now — even of the temperamental Nellie Boxall, a live-in maid for 18 years despite constant threats to quit and Woolf's constant attempts to fire her. (Readers of Woolf's collected letters will remember being overwhelmed by the enormous volume of correspondence about Boxall and her troubles, mostly addressed to Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell. One senses that Woolf and Boxall brought out the worst in each other.) Light quietly points out, in a footnote, that while Woolf and her subsequent biographers always referred to "Nelly," Boxall herself signed her name as "Nellie" and was known thusly in her own family. There was apparently no need, even in a home as famously progressive (not to mention word-conscious) as Woolf's, to get the servant's name right.

"Mrs. Woolf and the Servants" represents some remarkable detective work on Light's part, as she uncovers the life stories of Nellie and other Bloomsbury servants, all formerly first names that breeze by the Woolf reader.

Light, whose grandmother was a domestic servant, writes with sympathy and insight, blowing away the cobwebs of a way of life now gone. The book includes just a few soft-blurred photographs of these unsung members of Bloomsbury, including a strikingly happy, informal photo of Boxall with two other servants and Bell's daughter Angelica.

Yet, as Light notes, "Though mistresses and maids were constantly in each other's company, they seem never to have been photographed together. They never could appear side by side."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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