Michael Dirda on 'Mrs. Woolf and the Servants'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 5, 2008


An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury

By Alison Light

Bloomsbury. 376 pp. $30

This fine book -- superbly researched, often passionately eloquent, and enthralling throughout -- gives the lie to a notorious catchphrase: "As for living: Our servants will do that for us." That line -- taken from Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's symbolist drama "Axel" -- aptly encapsulates the weary languor of an etiolated aristocracy. But it also points up the huge psychological divide between the ruling classes and their domestic help, which was largely female. While the palely blue-blooded of 100 years ago might have found it comforting, or frightening, to imagine that their servants pulsed with red-hot animal vitality and energy, their actual cooks, chars and maids-of-all-work were generally too exhausted after 80- or 100-hour weeks to think about anything much but a warm bed and sleep. A chilling fact says it all: At the beginning of the 20th century, "the average life-expectancy for a woman was forty-six." And, as Alison Light points out, "domestic service was still the largest single female occupation. It remained so until at least 1945."

While Mrs. Woolf and the Servants focuses primarily on the interactions between Virginia Stephen, later Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), and the women who cleaned, cooked and cared for her over the course of her 59 years (too few, too few), it also probes the complex nature of dependence and care-giving. "What is entrusted to the servant," Light suggests, "is something of one's self. . . . Servants were the body's keepers, protecting its entrances and exits; they were privy to its secrets and its chambers; they knew that their masters and mistresses sweated, leaked and bled; they knew who could pregnate and who could not get pregnant; they handled the lying-in and the laying-out. Servants have always known that the emperor has no clothes. No wonder they were dubbed the scum of the earth and its salt, as they handled the food and the chamber-pots, returning dust to dust."

When Light first read Woolf's diaries, she found herself shocked by the novelist's vehemence, indeed viciousness, in the many entries about her cook Nellie Boxall. Boxall lived with Woolf for 18 years, from 1916 to 1934, and the pair battled constantly. Light decided that she wanted "to understand what they rowed about and what was at stake in this situation which tormented them so much." The resulting story would be about "mutual -- and unequal -- dependence" as well as social difference and class feelings and attitudes. Light thus hopes to understand more fully the complex synergy of forces behind domestic service as well as the tensions between upstairs and downstairs.

But she looks into the human soul, too. Ultimately, we are all dependent on others, especially as we grow older and face illness and death. As Light says in a rhetorical question that will give pause to anyone past a certain age, "Who will care for you when your turn comes?"

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants opens with some shocking anecdotes about 19th-century life: "Even the most liberal-minded mistress could be autocratic: when Elizabeth Barrett Browning's devoted maid, Lily Wilson, married and had a child, Lily was obliged to send him back to England, so as to concentrate properly on the Brownings' own ringleted boy." Yet the Victorian era was also, as Light reminds us, a time when people took service as a matter of honor and self-esteem: One was a public servant, or in the civil service, or served in a bank. People, in general, "believed the meaning of life could be found only in the dedication to something beyond oneself, in work and in family, however transitory that meaning might be. Domestic servants, too, found dignity and pride, and sometimes an affirmation of their religion, in doing their jobs well."

One of these was the nurse Sophia Farrell, who came to work for Woolf's mother and lived to hear of the drowning-suicide of the woman she had cared for as a little girl. Besides Farrell, Light discusses more than a score of other people who worked for the households of Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. While neither of Leslie Stephen's daughters was taught to cook, they were at least slightly more accomplished than their friend Lytton Strachey's sisters, who "couldn't boil an egg." Still, during much of her adult life, the author of Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse relied on Nellie Boxall. The idea of independence may have been central to Woolf's life, feminism and aesthetics, but it was nonetheless "Nellie who drew the curtains, brought the lemonade and the trays, who tempted Virginia's appetite with invalid foods, and presumably emptied the chamber-pot which continued to reside under the bed at Monk's House."

Throughout these pages, Light stresses how deeply Woolf denigrated the flesh and the physical. "Virginia's word for the underground emotions she associated with servants was 'subterranean,' the baser instincts, so called, of the life of the body and its appetites." Subterranean was an especially apt word (one thinks of H.G. Wells's Morlocks): "For Woolf, as for many others growing up in nineteenth-century urban culture, the topography of the house lent itself as an inevitable metaphor for bourgeois identity, with the lower orders, curtained off, relegated to the bottom of the house or to its extremities, like a symbolic ordering of the body (in English slang, 'back passage' and 'below stairs' have scatological or sexual connotations)." In short, "the figure of the servant was frequently associated with guilt and shame at a longing for a bodily life devalued as merely animal or low."

Light's signal achievement in her compelling book lies in divvying up her pages equally between the lives of the servants and that of their mistress. She recreates the world of late Victorian workhouses and orphanages, as she traces the faint outline of the early years of Lottie Hope, who spent her adult life working as a maid for Woolf and other Bloomsbury households. Like many of the domestics discussed in the book, Hope passed from one Bloomsbury to the next, along the way becoming close to Nellie Boxall, with whom she spent her later years (she died in 1973). The two were, apparently, just friends, unlike their famously promiscuous, and sexually complicated, overseers: Vanessa Bell, for instance, was married to art critic Clive Bell, but fell in love with the primarily homosexual painter Duncan Grant, who was at that time involved with bisexual novelist David Garnett. They all lived together, and Vanessa Bell later gave birth to Duncan's daughter Angelica, who grew up to marry . . . David Garnett.

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants makes clear that the novelist's "public sympathy with the lives of poor women was always at odds with private recoil." While Woolf may have written about "a room of one's own," she nonetheless "did not ask who would clean it. In The Waves the empty rooms which shimmer in the sunlight are miraculously free of dust. The ideal room, like the ideal body, would be free of dirt and waste." Still, Light reveals that Woolf was evolving in her attitudes during the 1930s, trying to understand the increasing democratization of society. In a sketch scribbled just a month before her death in 1941, she surprised herself by wondering about quite another sort of woman and her special room: Having gone to the loo at the Sussex Grill, Woolf noticed the lavatory attendant. What, she thought, is her life like? "The memoirs of a lavatory attendant have never been written."

Throughout Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, Light imbues her sentences with a depth of feeling and lived experience just slightly beyond what is expected: "Everyone who talked about Lottie lit up and laughed at the thought of her. If a life should be judged by what it generates rather than what it accumulates, then maybe Lottie Hope knew the secret of success." She also movingly records the distinguished diplomat Sir Nicholas Henderson confessing that he loved his childhood nurse "more than any other woman in his life." Above all, though, Light reminds us that even now we must still depend on the kindness of strangers:

"All of us begin our lives helpless in the hands of others and most of us will end so. How we tolerate our inevitable dependence, especially upon those who feed and clean and care for us, or take away our waste, is not a private or domestic question but one which goes to the heart of social structures and their inequalities. We rely constantly on others to do our dirty work for us and what used to be called 'the servant question' has not gone away: how could it? The figure of the servant takes us inside history but also inside our selves."

As that paragraph makes evident, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants is no dryly academic sociological study. It is an inquiry into the fundamental nature of human intimacy. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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