Thursday, May 7, 2015

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


Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light (2008) appealed to me because I love reading about the Bloomsbury Group. The title is a bit deceiving because the book is about much more than Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). It's a an interesting social history of women's lives in domestic service in England from the Victorian era up until the Second World War. Along with this narrative, the book looks at Virginia Woolf and her relationship to her servants.

Being a maid was the top employment for women from the Victorian era until after World War II. Many of these women were under twenty years of age and came from foundling homes or from rural England. Working and living conditions varied widely, depending upon whom a woman worked. (At Virginia Woolf's early home, 22 Hyde Park Gate, the maids lived in the dark, cold basement, and one of the servants lived in the attic where temperatures were extreme, depending on the season.) The average hours were long, anywhere between 80-100 hours a week, and a domestic servant who got a day off from time to time was considered lucky.

As the Bloomsbury Group loved to flout social convention, several members of the group did away with the requirement for their servants to wear uniforms, and it wasn't uncommon for a maid to be invited to have a meal or join in a party with her employers. However, Virginia Woolf's relationship to servants was one of ambivalence. She saw them as an intrusive presence in her life and struggled to be independent of them, an impossibility because she needed the help of a servant to run the house so that she could write. Also, Virginia was dependent upon servants and nurses when she was recovering from a nervous breakdown.

The book concentrates on Virginia's relationship with Nellie Boxall (1890-1965) who had previously worked for the artist Roger Fry before she joined the Woolfs in 1916. (Nellie stayed in the Woolfs' employ for eighteen years.) Nellie and Virginia argued quite often, which would end in Nellie's threatening to quit. Later, the two would make amends. Virginia wrote in her diary of the challenges and frustrations of dealing with Nellie. Ironically, when Nellie did leave, she landed in a much better situation, working for British film star, Charles Laughton, and his glamorous wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, in their lavish London home with all the modern conveniences that the Woolfs' residences lacked.

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury is a fascinating look at women's lives, not only domestic servants but their employers, and how changes in society and technology as well as two world wars affected the role of the domestic servant. Changes also took place in Virginia Woolf's world. She'd won some independence from servants such as learning to cook and only needing the help of one daily servant. Until the day she died, Virginia tried to come to grips with how to take part in domestic life and still maintain a writing life.  

I'd recommend Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life for anyone who enjoys reading about Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury, or women's history.

If you've read this book, I love to know your thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like just the sort of book I'd enjoy. I like reading stories which show the lives of women in the past...

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