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Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate…

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in… (2007)

by Alison Light

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2671542,587 (3.91)58
  1. 10
    The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes (nessreader)
    nessreader: It's so easy to forget how difficult housework must have been with no labour saving machinery and both of these books vividly recreate how much work went into the maintenance of the victorian bourgouis home. (The Light book covers early to mid 20th century, but Woolf's HIGH expectations of her staff seem to have been formed by Imperial 18xx assumptions) Hardyment's Behind the Scenes, illustrated, is about early household machinery, late 19th to early 20th century, as researched in Nat Trust buildings in the UK, if that interests you.… (more)

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Virginia Woolf, like the rest of England's upper-middle class in the late 19th and early 20th century, relied heavily throughout her life on domestic help, both live-in and, later, daily. Without someone to take care of the backbreaking, endless labor of running a household and keeping its inhabitants cleaned and fed, Woolf would never have had the opportunity to write, room of her own or not. And yet, Woolf was never comfortable with sharing her household with her servants, whom she felt drained her of energy and encroached on her precious privacy. Alison Light explores Virginia Woolf's life through the lens of her interactions with her various domestics--interactions that were often uncomfortable and irritating to her. She constantly schemed in her diary and her letters to rid herself of servants, and yet needed them to the point that she was never really free of them.

Light ranges about (sometimes bewilderingly) on a variety of topics--this book is at once a biography of Woolf, a tease about Bloomsbury, an exploration of service in early 20th century England, and a treatise on feminism, with forays into interwar British history and the development of the Labor movement. Light also delves deeply in to the psychology, or her perception of the psychology of her subjects, and I sometimes questioned her conclusions (and her qualifications for making these conclusions).

I found this book interesting, but also frustrating. It's my own fault, really. I was expecting a different book than the one I read, and I'm not sure why. "Mrs. Woolf" takes predominance in the title, and so I should have realized that she would take predominance in the narrative, but I was expecting more about the servants and service, and less about Virginia Woolf herself. It did goad me into checking Hermione Lee's [Virginia Woolf] biography out of the library, in part because I felt that Light expected her reader to already have a strong background in Woolf's life and the life in Bloomsbury. (At one point, Light says "In times of extreme violence and threat the intellectual's capacity to doubt and question could be a double-edged sword. 'We do represent the last utterances of the civilised,' her friend Morgan Forster had written to her." Leading this reader, at least, to Wikipedia to confirm that we were, indeed, talking about E.M. Forster.)

In this "Year of Reading Women," there's been interesting discussion about prominent and privileged women "speaking for the group" when their experiences don't represent the experiences of all, particularly of women of color or lower-income women. Something Light mentioned towards the end of the book brought this conversation strongly to mind:

"At least one working woman had been 'irked' by Virginia's class-blindness in [Three Guineas] and had taken her to task for it: 'your book would make some people think that you consider working women, and the daughters of educated men as a race apart. Do you think we enjoy being "hewers of wood and drawers of water", that we do menial tasks from choice and are fitted for nothing else?' In a nine-page letter Agnes Smith, an unemployed weaver from Huddersfield, expressed her indignation. Though she was in deep sympathy with Woolf's pacifism, she argued that Virginia ignored the economic and emotional dependence of women like herself, which she deemed far worse. Family dominated and directed her life just as much, if not more, since wages were so low -- 'a working woman who refuses to work will starve', as she put it succinctly.

. . .

"More letters were exchanged, and photographs of their homes, and some warmth grew between them, though they were never on first-name terms. Virginia asked her to come and visit; Agnes returned the invitation. Agnes's letters are touching and generous, Virginia's haven't survived. Agnes deferred to Virginia's talent and she restrained herself from pointing out her privilege, but she also wanted to educate Virginia. She saw that the Mrs Woolfs of this world couldn't help their ignorance."

I would have liked more of this interaction, but coming across it towards the end was a delight to me.

Much of what Light did discuss about the lives of these girls and women in service was heartbreaking, and a strong reminder to me about how very recent universal education is. "In 1945 the Labour government put the school-leaving age up to fifteen (sixteen was thought too expensive a measure), and there was free milk for all school children; these two things ensured the end of the British skivvy, although the woman who fought for both of them, Ellen Wilkinson, 'red Ellen', the first British woman to become a Minister of Education, took a lethal overdose, depressed by the lack of more radical reforms." This, which we take for granted now, passing just a couple of generations ago.
8 vote cabegley | Feb 7, 2014 |
Light's literary exploration of the mutual dependency between Virginia Woolf and her live-in (exclusively female) domestic servants and, by extension, class exploration of that interdependency in British society at the turn of the last century, is revealing of the emotional angst it produced in that famous writer and the social upheaval that it produced in the country.

The impression one gets from reading the book is that the entire Empire lived in fear. The upper classes opposed educating "the masses" for fear that they would obtain political consciousness and rise up and "slaughter us all in our beds." Virginia Woolf freely admits to this fear in herself. The servants feared they'd become homeless, or residents of workhouses with neither stability nor prospects.

Both social strata covered their fears by faking fondness and affection, by pretending concern and kindness. It was understood that as long as servants presented themselves as obedient, masters would present themselves as generous. Neither pose was genuine.

Servants gossiped, conspired, sabotaged, and stole from their employers. Masters, abused, over-worked, punished, and under-paid their employees. (But not, apparently in the Woolf household.)

Light chronicles the chaotic period of the decline and death of the British serving class while she documents and comments on how it tossed Virginia Woolf's very being into turmoil, perhaps contributing to her bouts of mental illness in complicated and Freudian ways.

Woolf was aware of the societal change around her and and self-aware of the roots of her personal antipathy -- her abhorrence of all things connected to the body, not of the mind; her oft-verbalized desire to be independent (from servant intrusion); her conflicting need for mothering; her helplessness in the face of her joyful undertaking as domestic mistress. She wanted the perks of the "mistress" side of the equation, but was less enamored and capable of the "domestic" requirements, though she did enjoy cooking.

The ultimate irony of all this modern awareness in Woolf is that she never told the story of the inner "real" life of any member of the serving class even though she recognized that it was one worthy of being told. She only added it to her endless list of things she agonized over. ( )
2 vote Limelite | Nov 10, 2013 |
A 'must read' for all those who love British fiction from 1850 through to the 1940's, as Light does so much more, for while she describes Woolf's particular personality and circumstances and relationships she places her story within the larger context of the steady collapse of the domestic 'industry' along with much of the caste distinctions that had been a matter-of-fact part of British life, deftly showing how Woolf's own discomfort was slightly ahead of the curve, but part of the tidal wave of change brought on by the industrial revolution. The reason it is a must read is that so many of the novelists of the time do not address 'downstairs' or do so in a way that is disingenuous and condescending (VW included). A few do, or try to, but I know I will henceforth be more alert to what choices these novelists made about how to describe (or not describe) the nitty gritty workings of houses, great and small. In any case, Woolf and her Bloomsbury group were in the vanguard in wanting to have no live-in servants at all, as they were a direct contradiction to their developing social values. At the same time, having been brought up as ladies, they did not have any idea how hard it was to clean a house, do laundry, make meals (from scratch!), wash dishes etcetera with no electricity and no appliances to speak of. So doing entirely without was a problem too - a paradox that made for much tension. As employers the Woolfs were more casual, generally, but cheap and unyielding about improvements and with pay. Woolf never really was able to sympathize directly with the people who worked for her; in theory, however, she tried - which is more than one can say of most at the time, but she never could view women of the working class as anything like equals, not even potentially. Especially not any women she actually knew at all well. Her most significant relationship, with Nellie Boxall, who worked mainly as a cook, was always a difficult one, neither of them able to sustain firm boundaries - leading to much inconsistency and dysfunction. Leonard sounds like a total pain, frankly, not an easy employer and no help at all with domestic unhappinesses. To Woolf's credit, in middle age she gamely steps up to the plate and learns to cook and do some of her own cleaning and doesn't complain, the joy of having her house to herself far outweighs the tedium of chores. She does always have help for heavy work, and I don't fault her for that. So do I.

So much that Light reveals is fascinating, some of it pure information. In 1889 there were 54,000 under the age of 16 living in Britain's workhouses - orphans and abandoned. The lucky ones got scooped up to be trained as maids and Light's descriptions of the culture shock (with NO sympathy from new employers) is appalling. You become aware and grateful too, to all the marvelous appliances and machines we have now, from the humble carrot peeler or can-opener to the dish and clothes washer and the vacuum. Thanks to these inventions we can look after ourselves and need not struggle with these relationships.

The ending, with a meditation on the act of writing biography and a follow-up of the later lives of the former Woolf/Bloomsbury servants is very strong and also positive: how poignantly these women describe their childhoods and how far they have come in their lifetimes, in terms of comfort and self respect. ****1/2 ( )
2 vote sibyx | Sep 28, 2013 |
Virginia Woolf didn't want servants, not because of any egalitarian social views, but because they irritated the hell out of her. Light's nonfiction look at the demise of the serving class in early 20th Century England rambles at times, but is worthwhile in its humanizing of the servants and their lives after service. Especially interesting for the contrast between Virginia and her sister, Vanessa Bell.

Read more reviews at http://thegrimreader.blogspot.com ( )
  nohrt4me2 | Sep 9, 2013 |
This is is a very complex treatment of Virginia Woolf's antipathy to servants due to her rather snobbish upbringing and her abhorrence of her body due to the sexual repression of the day and her own sexual assault by her half brothers. She hated being dependant on servants who represented to her the physical side of life, also she and her husband were quite tight with the penny. Also, much as she chided the servants and made fun of their mindlessness, she was very disappointed when they weren't slavishly loyal to her. ( )
  Citizenjoyce | Feb 4, 2013 |
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An analysis of the relationship between Virginia Woolf and her live-in domestics offers insight into the writer's personal and literary existence as shaped by her daily encounters with servants, in an account that also explores her life as a reflection of period culture and history. 25,000 first printing.… (more)

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