Alison Light, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants (2007)

Don’t be fooled by the cover design, cute pink with girly drawings of a teapot and an iron! This is not a light book (no pun intended!), and decidedly not chick lit. I expected to be swept off my feet, but the result is somewhat harsher and more bitter than expected. I’m still not quite sure of what to think about it, so this post will probably be a mess.

Regarding the “Servants” part of the title, Light gives a rich overview of the transformations of domestic service in Britain, from the late Victorians to post-WW2, which actually covers Woolf’s lifetime. I was fascinated by this side of the book, how domestic service basically disappeared after being the first source of employment for women in Victorian England. Her approach is systematic, never ashamed of details, and close to another history book I loved, The Victorian House by Judith Flanders (especially the unappetizing bits about sewage management).

But things get a lot more difficult (for me, for the writer and her subject) when we get to the “Mrs. Woolf” part. The title can be read in many ways: who were Virginia Woolf’s servants? How did Woolf treat her servants? What did they do for her? What did Woolf write and think about servants in general? All these questions get contradictory answers: Virginia Woolf dreamt of being able to live without servants, but she actually never did (even when she claimed she was, and it was not before the late 1930s, she still had a daily char coming, but no live-in servants anymore). She (and Bloomsbury artists as a whole) treated her servants perhaps more liberally than in other milieus, but she was also stingy and possessive, and the words she used about them in her diary are often shockingly spiteful or even insulting. She dreamt that women would be equals and free, but she was deeply disturbed that such liberal views would make her servants, and other lower-classes people, her own equals. A detailed analysis of her novels show the nearly physical disgust for the women in charge of the messy parts of life, which resonates with her disgust for bodies. The only way she could describe them in novels was as exotic, distant creatures, in no way close to her.

I feel a bit sad to see Virginia Woolf under this angle of being insensitive and mean and ungrateful towards her domestic servants. While reading it came to me that it was an unfair indictment against her, that the fact that she kept such a minute diary (registering the bulk of daily life and conversations in a way that few others have done) made it possible to be picky in retrospect, while she may have been a mistress no worse or no better than her contemporaries. I understood that Alison Light’s project was to record the lives of those women who shared Woolf’s life in as much detail as Woolf’s diary (because they remain largely absent in her diary). But as much as the history of domestic service interested me, I didn’t so much care about the details of Nellie Boxhall’s or Lotte Hope’s ancestors and opinions as such. It may be very politically incorrect but even if servant and mistress are all equally respectable, in this case I’m not as interested in the former as in the latter.

Woolf’s diary is priceless not only for the insight it gives into Bloomsbury characters and history, but mostly because of the writer’s vision and writing, something that sets her apart from others. Her inconsistencies in treating the “lower classes” don’t make her a lesser writer. She professed high political ambitions, but it would be wrong to take her as a living icon for these ideas. And it’s not only her education and money (or gender, for that matter) that made her an extraordinary artist. In a disturbing page, Alison Light makes a parallel between depressive Woolf (always taken care of during her deepest crisis) and a borderline servant, “Mad Mary” who suffered from delusional “hysteria” (as it was called then) and who was quickly bundled off. Woolf never acknowledged in her writing that they may have both suffered from the same affliction and rather distanced herself from the “poor woman”. But placed in her shoes, who would? Was she expected to empathize while she struggled against her own demons? To my surprise, Alison Light rather underlines in the conclusion of this part that the maid couldn’t afford psychoanalysis: “in another life intelligent, inventive, artful “Mad Mary”, doomed to be a housemaid, might well have been a writer. But who knows what she actually was?” I was downright annoyed: Mad Mary might have been a writer, but she might just as well not be. Not all frustrated, deprived housemaids could have become writers. I was deeply uncomfortable with this relativism. To me, it’s about as useful as building castles in the air. Domestic service made social inequalities an obvious fact in every well-off home, but that doesn’t mean that all of them were abusive. It may be a quandary to live in a democratic society with high level of inequalities, where some people are bound to serve others, but… that’s life. Some socialist dictators have tried to force absolute equality but it was a disaster. There is a bitterness in Alison Light’s voice, a way to tell early on that her own grandmother was in service, a way to warn the reader that we all are being cared for in childhood and in our old age, so that the question of servants is never solved, that I didn’t find appropriate.

Maybe this rant is turning into an unfair indictment against Alison Light’s book, and unfair it is indeed, as this book is a fascinating read for all those interested in this period of Britain history and in Virginia Woolf.

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4 thoughts on “Alison Light, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants (2007)

  1. Very interesting review! As I read it, I thought that I’d probably enjoy the historical information on servants, but might enjoy the Woolf part less. I agree that learning details of the lives of servants wouldn’t be all that interesting and that a bitter tone would be potentially hard to take.

  2. Interesting review since I’ve been wondering about this book. I’ve read 2 1/2 of Woolf’s diaries and whiel she doesn’t say mean things about her servants she clearly gets frustrated with their personal issues. It seems poor Lotte is always on the verge of being fired. Even if the Woolf part of the book isn’t the best, I’ll still keep it on my list because I really don’t know much about what being a servant used to be like.

  3. Dorothy- thank you! I didn’t mean to imply that the book wasn’t good at all. It takes quite an unusual point of view among Woolf specialists, and also a personal take, so it can’t leave anyone unmoved.

    Stefanie- if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of daily life, this book is quite good! All the more if you’ve already “heard” Woolf’s side of the story. It also gives a long-term perspective to show how relations between servants and masters evolved in one century, I learnt a lot.

  4. Definitely tough to see feet of clay on those writers we esteem. I know because I’ve written about Emily Dickinson’s relationship with her servants. It was hard for Virginia Woolf to acknowledge her dependency on her maids — dependency was a word that still held a sting in her era — but their presence opened a window of opportunity for Woolf and certainly for Dickinson. Whenever Emily Dickinson was without a maid, was thrust back into kitchen duty, she was silenced. What a body of literature Lottie Hope’s presence made possible. If you’ve interested in the Margaret Maher and her Dickinson kitchen colleagues, check out http://maidasmuse.com/

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