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

by Alison Light

Hardcover, 2008




Bloomsbury Press (2008), Edition: First U.S. Edition, 400 pages


Loathing, anger, shame - and deep affection- Virginia Woolf's relationship with her servants was central to her life. Like thousands of her fellow Britons she relied on live-in domestics for the most intimate of daily tasks. Her cook and parlour maid relieved her of the burden of housework and without them she might never have become a writer. But unlike many of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf was frequently tormented by her dependence on servants. Uniquely, she explored her violent, often vicious, feelings in her diaries, novels and essays. What, the reader might well wonder, was it like for the servants to live with a mistress who so hated giving her orders, and who could be generous and hostile by turns? Mrs Woolf and the Servantsis a riveting and highly original study of one of Britain 's greatest literary modernists. Ultimately, though, it is also a moving and eloquent testimony to the ways in which individual creativity always needs the support of others. p>… (more)


½ (46 ratings; 3.9)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cabegley
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member JaneSteen
My own grandmother on my mother's side went into service at the age of 13 (this would have been in 1915). Perhaps it was a sign of the changing times that her mother allowed her to come home after a few weeks, because she hated the job. So this book was fascinating to me for several reasons. First,
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because I love biographies of literary people. Second, because I am fascinated by the intellectual circles of the late 19th and early 20th century, and this book tells you quite a bit about Bloomsbury from the inside. Third, because it's a great social history of a time of change; it begins in the Victorian era when servants were simply a fact of life, runs through the changes wrought by the two world wars, and finishes in the 60s when servants were--almost--a thing of the past.

I also learned a lot about Virginia Woolf, and am now looking for a good recent biography of her. I read her in my teens, when for some reason much of my reading was from the 1920s, but I think I need to do some serious revisiting of this era.

This is a well-written book, and although it jumps about a bit chronologically, I was able to keep the characters straight in my head. It is pervaded by the class consciousness that the British never seem able to shake off, and is quite damning about Woolf's snobbishness and blindness to the fact that her own life, much of which, as with any writer, was lived inwardly, was in fact built on the substructure of other people's. It made me think about quite a few things, and may be worth re-reading.
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LibraryThing member Panopticon2
If I could write books half as good as this, and get paid to do so - well, life would be pretty much perfect. This title languished on my bedside table for months on end, but when I finally started it, I found it hard to put down. This is not just another book about Virginia Woolf; there's plenty
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of those out there. As the title states, it's a study of the tumultuous, fraught relations Woolf had all her life with the string of servants she (and during her childhood, her parents) employed. I'm fascinated by the history of domestic life, and Alison Light has done a stunning job in bringing the lives of Woolf's various cooks, parlourmaids, tweenies and chars - lives which have truly been hidden from history - to light.

It must be said that the resulting portraits are hardly flattering to Woolf. She and her sister Vanessa Bell corresponded extensively throughout their lives and frequently moaned about their servants, referring to them in ways which were always snobbish and often offensive. And yet, as upper-middle-class women raised never to lift a finger, they were unwilling and largely incapable of keeping house themselves. As a result, Virginia felt increasingly trapped by her gentility. How ironic that the woman who argued so vociferously for "a room of one's own" had to employ another woman to keep that room clean!
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LibraryThing member Limelite
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
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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.

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 abhorance 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.
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LibraryThing member nessreader
The downside of this is that knowledge of her pennypinching and inappropriate victim complex will taint my reading of Woolf in future, though Light makes a point of putting the servants' experience in context. She describes that generation of middle class women as having conflict with domestic
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LibraryThing member edella
amazon PD: Virginia Woolf was a feminist and a bohemian but without her servants – cooking, cleaning and keeping house - she might never have managed to write. Mrs Woolf and The Servants explores the hidden history of service. Through Virginia Woolf’s extensive diaries and letters and brilliant
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detective work, Alison Light chronicles the lives of those forgotten women who worked behind the scenes in Bloomsbury, and their fraught relations with one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.
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LibraryThing member janw
I read this book because I wanted to contrast the British early 20th century experience with The Help experience of service in the deep south of the early 60s. Mrs Woolf & the Servants confirmed the history seen in the PBS series Upstairs/Downstairs. As in The Help employers were convinced their
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servants were doomed to be dependents not capable of higher intellectual thought. I was struck that Woolf described her servants as being like unformed and undisciplined children.
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LibraryThing member bookwoman247
This was an excellent biography of Virginia Woolf and od her servants. The author seems to have researched many aspects of her subjects thoroughly and well.

The interaction between Virginia Woolf and her servants was fascinating , and gives a new perspective of her, making a subject that's been
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written about many times fresh and vibrant, giving it new life.

My favorite parts, though, were about Woolf's writing, and how her relationship to her own and other Bloomsbury servants affected it. Sometimes there was even a direct correlation between a real-life servant and a servant in one of Woolf's novels or stories. I adore that kind of insight.

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants gets full marks from me. This is biography at its best.
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LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the history of service is the history of British women.

Subtitled, "An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury," this book is a study of the British servant class in the first part of the 20th century, and specifically those who worked for Virginia
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Woolf and members of her family. Because service was the largest occupation for British women until at least 1945, readers also get an idea of how most people lived during this time. Because Woolf came of age during this same period, author Alison Light is able to use those who served the Woolf family to show how the servant role evolved over time, and even how their work was affected by world events:
Who emptied the sewage was a serious issue among the servants since it affected their earnings and their self-respect. In wartime, however, these caste distinctions were harder to maintain.

And the "servant class" itself was subject to stratification, based on the family being served. Working for famous people had a certain cachet:
They rewarded their employers by becoming snobs, enjoying the borrowed glamour of working for famous people, and in a pathetic tribute to Bloomsbury, mirroring the cliquish world in which they moved, the servants called themselves ‘the click’.

Going into service was often the only option available to young women from less well-off families with limited marriage prospects. The more fortunate ones established strong personal relationships with the family they served; this was the case with some of the Woolf servants. A maid named Sophie served the family for so many years, they ended up providing for her in retirement. In other cases, the relationship was more fractious and Virginia often felt her maid intruding on her daily routine. Later in her life, as various labor-saving devices were introduced, the Woolfs eliminated live-in servants and had someone come only in the morning, affording them a degree of privacy they had never before experienced.

I found Alison Light's approach to this topic interesting, although the scarcity of primary sources about the individual servants caused her to devote considerable pages to Virginia and her writing career, seeming to stray from the intent of the book. But learning about the events in Virginia's life, and her incredible creative gifts, also helped explain her feelings about living with servants. I recommend this book for anyone interested in the Bloomsbury set.
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Physical description

400 p.; 6.74 inches


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