From the Washington Post.
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.”
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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.
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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.”
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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.”
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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.”