A New Book About Virginia Woolf

From a review of Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, in the September 27, 2008 issue of The Economist

Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, may have been early icons of liberated womanhood, but who made their lunch every day or ran the bath? Woolf was famously undomesticated while the more home-oriented Bell needed someone to help look after her children while she carried on with her work as a painter — and her love affairs. Put simply: without an army of staff much of the work produced by the Bloomsbury group of writers and artists might never have seen the light of day.

In her book which has just come out in America, Alison Light, a lecturer in English at Newcastle University, ferrets out the hidden toil of the working-class women who made sure that the lives of the group ran smoothly. She starts in 1880s Kensington, where the young Stephen sisters lived with their well-to-do parents and numerous servants, including Sophie Farrell, who joined the household as cook in 1886. After their parents died, Sophie accompanied “Miss Genia” and Vanessa to Bloomsbury where the girls were determined to try a new kind of living. Some of the old-fashioned ways of doing things — dressing for dinner, for example — went by the board, but the sisters still expected Sophie to produce three meals a day. And they did not help with the washing up.

This, really, is the crux of Ms. Light’s absorbing book. Woolf and the other Bloomsbury group members regarded themselves as socialist and held what they considered to be “advanced” views on the mingling of different social groups — their servants were not expected to wear uniforms, for example, or address them as “sir” and “madam.” Yet they seem to have been quite clueless about what life was like below stairs.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Woolf’s diary. She complains endlessly about Nellie Boxall, who succeeds Sophie as her cook. Despite Woolf’s sympathy for these “obscure” women, her complaints have a nasty tone: “She is in a state of nature: untrained, uneducated . . . so that one sees a human mind wriggling undressed.”

The Light in the Kitchen

. . . of our old house in Manila, during a storm, was a yellow light.

In Bacolod, where we went every summer, the lights were even dimmer.

I seem to remember my three brothers, my sister and I all sleeping in the same room. Big grey lizards clung to the walls and made clicking sounds in their throats.

Far below us was the swimming pool, obscured from view by manggo trees. At night, when all the patrons of the resort left, our family was left alone, all alone next to the zoo with the emu who cried, the monkeys that jabbered all night long, the crocodiles that moved sluggishly through the brackish water at the bottom of their cage.

There was one window that didn’t close all the way: this I remembered clearly. I was always afraid of things slipping in from the night. I tried to bang it all the way shut, but it wouldn’t. Every summer we went to Bacolod, and every summer the window was there, with the gap between the shutter and the frame.

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