Monday, 5 May 2008

Book Review: Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light

Nellie Boxall came to work as a live-in servant to Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1918 and stayed until 1934. During those 18 years, a running battle was fought between mistress and servant

for control and for mutual understanding…Virginia wrote obsessively about Nellie in her letters and diaries; she felt sick after their arguments, furious, guilty, bewildered and disgusted by it all; sometimes she anxiously sought to appease Nellie, sometimes she burst out violently and defensively.

Fascinated by the ferocity of the feelings involved, Alison Light took this fraught relationship as her starting point for Mrs Woolf and the Servants,

a story about mutual – and unequal – dependence but…also about social differences, about class feelings and attitudes…I wanted to know much Nellie and Virginia’s story was special to them and how much it was an inevitable product of the servant relationship.

This led her back from the 1930s to the 1880s when Virginia and Vanessa Stephen were growing up in an upper middle class Victorian home with a regiment of servants to tend to their every need. The servants were mainly country women who “went into service” at twelve or fourteen because changes in the rural economy left them without work in their home villages. One such was Sophia Farrell, who remained in the Stephen family’s employ most of her life, first as cook-housekeeper to Virginia’s parents, then to members of the younger generation when they set up their own households in the 1900s.

But by the time Nellie Boxall came to work for the Woolfs, society was changing. The line that separated mistress and servant was beginning to erode: the seemingly inexhaustible supply of servants was drying up and social deference was not what it was. Alison Light uncovers the hidden life stories of those who served the households of Virginia and her siblings and uses them to show why and how the master-servant relationship changed and what it cost the people involved. As well as Sophia Farrell, loyal and deferential, and the volatile Nellie, we also meet the garrulous, giggly Lottie Hope, brought up in one of the homes founded by the now little-known Edith Sichel to train orphans as domestic servants, Grace Germany, “the Angel of Charleston” the oft-unsung mainstay of the bohemian household of Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa, and the capable, cheerful local Sussex girl Louie Everest who “did” for the Woolfs for many years.

But this is more than a fascinating study in social history. It also offers illuminating insights into the influence of the servants on the lives of the Bloomsbury set, and especially on the inner life and the writings of Virginia Woolf. As adults, Virginia and Vanessa saw themselves as liberated from the servant-dependent constraints of Victorian society but they still needed servants, however “difficult” they might be, to do the domestic chores that allowed them the time and freedom to pursue their artistic lives. Yet servants, no longer living in separate quarters behind the proverbial green baize door, intruded into the privacy of their employers – heard, for example, in the creaking floorboards and through the thin walls of Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ country home. Alison Light imagines Mrs Woolf thinking,

One would never really have a room of one’s own whilst they were in and out. And what if one’s housemaids were not so different after all in their dreams and desires? What if they had souls like one’s own?

Light shows us other paradoxes too: as a member of the Labour Party, Virginia subscribed to notions of equality, but she could never rid herself of inherited class snobbery; and the Bloomsberries and their friends never completely shed their dependence on “the servants”. Although Virginia eventually became a competent cook after Nellie Boxall was finally sacked and replaced by a “daily”, we may smile when Light tells us that

Lytton Strachey’s sisters couldn’t boil an egg and had to wait on the servant’s day off for one of their younger relatives to come in and light the stove before they could put a kettle on.

As for Virginia Woolf’s writing, the servants, despite their ignorance and their interruptions, were often her window on the world. She frequently jotted down their tales and gossip as potential copy for her fiction and essays, “the chinks of light glimpsed through the thick hedges of class feeling which boxed her in.” And they were sometimes in her thoughts on the nature of self in relation to others. She even included a lavatory attendant’s viewpoint (based on an overheard conversation) in a short story, though she dropped it from the final draft.

Written with clarity, vigour and sympathy, Mrs Woolf and the Servants is a gem of social history writing which also gives us the opportunity of seeing the Bloomsbury set in general, and Virginia Woolf in particular, from a new and sometimes surprising angle.

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