The sheer volume of secondary literature inspired by the life of Virginia Woolf is downright frightening.
There have been books about Woolf’s madness, her marriage, her siblings, her friendships, her loves, her homes, and the London in which she lived and moved.
And that doesn’t even begin to take into account the glut of biographies, letters, commentaries, and memoirs spun off her Bloomsbury companions.
So can a book like Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury possibly tell us anything new? Yes.
Light, a London academic and author, is not offering another biography. Her aim is a more surprising one. She wants to “restore the servants to the story.” In part, Light (whose grandmother worked as a domestic servant and recalled being “treated like dirt”) hopes to reclaim the “dignity and the respect [servants] deserve.”
But she is also fascinated by the degree to which Woolf, and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, self-styled bohemians and free thinkers, lived in thrall to their domestic help.
“Why we have [servants] I can’t think,” Woolf moaned to Bell via letter. “Sordid ... degrading ... a confounded bore,” she confided to her diary of her relationship with Nellie, her servant for 18 years.
Yet neither Woolf nor Bell nor just about anyone else in the circles within which they moved could have coped without them. As Light demonstrates, for centuries the institution of domestic service was the foundation on which the British household was built.
It was also a vital chapter in the history of British women. From the mid-17th century up until at least 1945, Light writes, domestic service was the largest single female occupation.
And yet for all that the institution kept both Britain’s society and its economy humming, it imposed strange burdens on those who practiced it.
In a society heavily segregated by class, domestic service required servants and their masters to maintain a constant – and often uncomfortable – intimacy.
“My brains are becoming soft ... by constant contact with the lower classes,” Bell complained to Woolf after a holiday during which she was forced to live on the same floor with her servants.
Life with the Woolfs turned Nellie into “a mongrel” with “no roots any where,” Woolf worried. “How can an uneducated woman let herself in, alone, into our lives?”
Light traces the history of servants throughout Woolf’s life, starting with her girlhood under the care of Sophie Farrell, an exemplar of “the faithful retainer” who, even as a retiree, continued to yearn for the family she had once waited on.
Later, as a young married woman, Woolf employed Lottie Hope, an orphan raised by philanthropists to be a servant. (Work as a servant was considered a great good compared with the other options open to an abandoned child of the era.)
But the drama queen of the group was Nellie. Like Woolf, she lost her mother as a girl and, like Woolf, grew up complicated and needy. The two quarreled regularly and played out complex dramas for years before Woolf finally had the courage to terminate the relationship.
The truth is that Woolf and Bell and others in their set were fairly liberal, benevolent employers. Yet rarely if ever did they see their servants as beings with needs as valid as their own. (Woolf lived on £4,000 a year yet complained of the “meanness” of her servants who made do with the £40 she paid them annually.)
Light’s research is thorough and she does a good job of joining social history to Woolf’s particular story. “After centuries of domestic service in Britain,” she writes, “what it meant to be a servant – and to have servants – is still a remarkably undiscovered country.”
“Mrs. Woolf and her Servants” makes a meaningful foray into that territory.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.