As I mentioned last week, I finally read (and loved) Alison Light’s brilliant social history, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants. Light’s book opens with a chapter on Sophie Farrell, the Stephen & Duckworth family cook (and thus the cook of Woolf’s childhood) and then largely focuses on Nellie Boxall, Woolf’s cook for 18 years. Boxall, Farrell, and other servants of Bloomsbury become the occasion for meditating on the phenomenon of domestic service.
Until WWII, most women who worked, worked in domestic service but, understandably, the workers’ rights movements that were arising in the 20th century largely focused on waged labor outside the domestic sphere. Through careful excavation, Light, herself the granddaughter of a domestic worker, imagines the intense intimacies of the Victorian and modern home. (Image: Nellie Boxall; Harvard Theater Archives.)
The book was widely reviewed when it came out two years ago, so you’ve probably read all about it already. Still, the story doesn’t get stale. It’s amazing to think of Woolf growing up in a house where she just took off her clothes and let them fall to the floor, where servants cleaned her chamber pot every morning (how wonderful, I think, that I do not have to sleep near a big bowl of urine! One of the perks of the 21st century.), where she never cooked. Or that, when the Woolf’s hired switched to a daily cook in 1929, it was the first time in their lives that they had been alone in their house.
How very strange to think that: that one would live forty-seven years with an employee, a servant, always in the house. No wonder, I think, that the class of servant-employing British (from middle-class up, say), developed a national character of stiff upper lips and discretion. If someone else knew all my intimate details, everything about my body and its functions, I would develop some secrets in other parts of my life, too.
If you’re interested in others’ opinions on Light’s wonderful book, you might look to Mona Simpson in The Atlantic. I especially admired the way that she flipped the linkage between Orwell and Woolf (which usually goes to Orwell’s advantage) here:
Orwell’s relation to coal production remained abstract, whereas Woolf would see her own dinner cooked, her underwear scrubbed, and her chamber pot from the night before emptied and washed. Domestic work has always put the people doing the work and the ones benefiting from it in a deeply intimate and unequal relationship. Woolf needed to hire a woman in order to write. None of us, least of all a woman given to inward examination, wishes to think that the emotional conditions necessary for her to do the work she loves involve some form of oppression. These messy feelings of guilt and dependence may have been Woolf’s obstacle in depicting Nellie. Light’s book proves one thing that could not have been the problem: it wasn’t that Woolf didn’t love her enough.By contrast, I was quite disappointed with the conclusion of Claire Messud’s review in the Times. She writes "As readers, we must be grateful that Virginia had the good fortune to have help — she was so emotionally delicate that she would have written little without it."
I don’t think that emotional delicacy is the issue. In a house without toilets or central heating or a washing machine, where the oven had no gauges and temperatures had to be checked by sticking an arm in, without refrigeration, where food came daily, delivered by any number of sellers, it’s hard to imagine anyone managing to wash and iron clothes, tend the fire in the hearth and the kitchen, cook and clean meals and also write Mrs. Dalloway. I’m surprised that Messud is so unfair to Woolf—and in such a boring, antifeminist way.