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'Mrs Woolf and The Servants' by Alison Light

"Mrs Woolf & The Servants; the hidden heart of domestic service" by Alison Light.

I found this a beautifully written, lucid account and very thought-provoking. I can't really fault it. The jacket blurb calls it "riveting and highly original" and for once I agree. The tone seems just right, at once analytic, always clear-eyed, with just the right mix of owned-up personal reflection in it. I say "owned-up" because so often authors (as this book itself draws attention to) do not own up to or analyse their own background prejudices and assumptions, and for a reader like me, it can be hard to unpick them when I am reading away, just hoovering up the content.

Light's grandmother and grandmother-in-law were both domestic servants as young women, and this informs her thinking. So often academic accounts, history, etc is written from the point of view of those who, subtly or obviously, have benefitted from the existing social system, rather than those who were exploited by it. I think it is one of the amazing achievements of the post-war world that someone like Light is now an educated expert. It reminds me of Penelope Lively's comment in "A House Unlocked" that the movements for change in the 20th century meant that she was perfectly able to meet and marry a working-class boy made good by access to education, when she was a granddaughter of the landed gentry.

Light uncovers the unwritten stories of the servants (usually but not always female) who underwrote the Bloomsbury circle's creative efforts and everyday lives and, in that over-recorded society, were generally ignored and under-recorded. She focuses on Virginia Woolf's relationship to the servants who supported her life from birth to death, in her parents' classic Victorian household and her own supposedly modern and Bohemian one. Light gives them back their dignity and their selfhood though her diligent research, and where she speculates or does not know something, she is quite open about it. The “after-lives”, appendix and bibliography are interesting in themselves.

Virginia Woolf, although she wrote important feminist works, in her own diaries and letters shows an unreconstructed attitude to women of the "lower" classes, dismissing them almost as inhuman to her friends and family. She simply cannot seem to put herself into their minds and emotions, she who famously tried to do this with the people who inhabited her books. Again and again she fails to imagine that servants, or working class people at all, can have any intelligence; they do not "understand humour"; they do not have lasting attachments, and she frequently castigates them for thinking "only of themselves". Although she and Leonard founded the Rodmell branch of the Labour Party, half of whose members  were their own servants (!), they steadfastly refused to raise their wages, improve the cook's kitchen or the two primitive tied cottages Leonard bought to house the servants who lived "out". The Woolfs dreamed of being free of the fret and bother of servants always living cheek-by-jowl with them, but this was just an airy-fairy dream as they had no real intention or ability to do everything for themselves, nor much conception of what this meant. Leonard also claimed in his memoirs that they lived "servantless" for 20+ years when in fact the full-time gardener provided much of what they ate and the cook-general began each day by arriving at 8 a.m. to make breakfast. The Bell/Garnet rural idyll at Charleston Farmhouse was similarly only carefree because of the unrelenting hard work of loyal servants.

I was thus cheering when Nellie Boxall, with whom Virginia had a difficult and emotionally-fraught relationship for some 16 years, full of rows and blame, having been finally sacked by VW went on to work as cook for Charles Laughton & Elsa Lanchester. They were then a starry couple in London at the time, and Nellie was treasured by them! She also enjoyed the bang up- to-date kitchen in their fashionable flat, and her own much more comfortable living quarters.

Light gives credit where it is due. The servants in Bloomsbury often swapped, or were swapped, around the households and having grown used to the Bohemian set seemed reluctant to leave it. They formed their own "click" of friends, much as their "superiors" did , and were free from the hated uniforms and caps, and were sometimes included in social events and outings, and were allowed to have relatives to stay. But all too frequently, despite these relaxations of established rules, old unexamined attitudes lay beneath the liberal surface of their employers, who could be very mean financially (though generous with themselves), hypocritical, automatically suspicious of servants' honesty, and very reluctant to take responsibility for these long-time employees when it came to sickness or old age. In fact they often dismiss the servants' illnesses and exhaustion as just comedy or fantasy (as the wider public were encouraged to e.g. in Punch cartoons, film and stage roles).

Light places all this in a wider context of attitudes and changing conditions from the 1860s to the war years and after.

Thanks for the review , Freyda. That sounds a very interesting book. I’ve added it to my wish-list.

Re: 'Mrs Woolf and The Servants' by Alison Light

Freyda wrote:
It reminds me of Penelope Lively's comment in A House Unlocked that the movements for change in the 20th century meant that she was perfectly able to meet and marry a working-class boy made good by access to education, when she was a granddaughter of the landed gentry.

This history of a household could almost be a companion one to the Lively one which we both enjoyed nearly three years ago. Where does the time go? Anyway, thanks also from me for the review, Freyda.

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