The Hidden Heart
Woolf’s published volumes of diaries and letters brim with accounts of her public and private exchanges with and reflections on many of the leading figures of her age in the arts, in letters, and in politics. The popularity of these volumes rests in part with their astonishingly vivid and detailed accounts of Woolf’s own writing processes and techniques, and in part with the glittering high calibre gossip they furnish us with. The torrid affairs of Bloomsbury are illumined; and Woolf is by turns eloquent and witty in her warmth and devastatingly cruel in her prejudices. But these documents are also richly studded with incidental portraits of the people who shared long periods of her life in her intimate domestic space, vignettes and asides that reveal an uneasy set of relationships. Woolf often turns to her diary or letters, still thrown by the latest crisis in the on-going troubles she encounters in employing live-in and outside staff.
I have just read Alison Light’s marvellous and fascinating book, which, in the face of sparse documentary evidence, attempts a detailed account of the experiences of the live-in domestic servants in Woolf’s life, and to restore to them due dignity and respect. In the 1920s, when Woolf’s literary career was reaching its zenith, and she was emerging as a champion of feminism, socialism, pacifism and anti-fascism, she pours into her private writings her confusion and anger over her own excruciating role as an employer of servants as well as her personal venom, and she comes hot to the page after many a tiff with the servants or with her husband or her sister over the servants. She does not emerge well from her own accounts of such domestic frictions, but she is more alive to her own contradictory position than some received stereotyped versions of Woolf would have us believe.
Virginia and Leonard Woolf saw in New Year 1925 at Monks House, Rodmell, their country retreat, and returned on 2nd January to their metropolitan home in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury. An exasperated diary entry for January 1925 records: ‘And today, for the 165th time, Nelly has given notice – Won’t be dictated to: must do as other girls do. This is the fruit of Bloomsbury. On the whole I’m inclined to take her at her word. The nuisance of arranging life to suit her fads, & the pressure of ‘other girls’ is too much, good cook though she is, & honest, crusty old maid too, dependable, in the main, affectionate, kindly, but incurably fussy, nervy, unsubstantial. Anyhow, the servant question no longer much worries me.’ Nellie Boxall is the long serving, and long suffering, cook whose spirited defiance Woolf recognises, somewhat patronisingly, as partly her own doing – the ‘fruit’ of the Bloomsbury Group’s progressive, egalitarian politics and notoriously easygoing domestic arrangements. The spat with her servant forms a timely coda to Woolf’s famous assertion, in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), that ‘on or about December, 1910, human character changed’, which she illustrates with reference to the behaviour and character of ‘one’s cook’. Woolf’s essay describes a shift from the Edwardian to Georgian era, in art and life, in which ‘all human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature’. The ‘Victorian cook’ – ‘a leviathan in the lower depths’ – is surpassed by ‘the Georgian cook’ – ‘a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat’ – and now to argue with her mistress.
The central turn of Light’s gripping argument is a particularly low point in Woolf’s stormy relations with Boxall, when the author of the feminist manifesto A Room of One’s Own is so affronted by Boxall’s ordering her to leave her room, that she is moved to sack her (192). Yet Light does show Woolf’s keen sense of the hypocrisies and paradoxes of her own privileged position and the ironies exposed in and by her professed universalist feminism. Leonard Woolf is shown to be not so self aware. Light’s attention to the precise details of the pay and the conditions of service the Woolfs offered as employers of domestic workers is salutary reading. Prior to Light’s book, Bloomsbury biographers, critics and historians have not done much to investigate the views and experiences of the numerous domestic servants who knew and worked for Woolf. This book is long overdue. Painstakingly researched, it offers a robust discussion of the contradictory domestic politics of Bloomsbury and the wider culture, from Victorian origins in Woolf’s childhood to the present day, long after Woolf’s death in 1941 and her husband’s in 1969. Light has gone to considerable lengths to find every available scrap of information about the lives of several of Woolf’s domestic employees, including Sophie Farrell, the ‘family treasure’ of Woolf’s childhood, the housemaid and cook Lottie Hope, who worked for other Bloomsbury households as well as for the Woolfs, the notorious Nellie Boxall, who when she finally left the Woolfs for good went on to work for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, and Percy Bartholomew the gardener, employed at Monks House and housed by the Woolfs in tied accomodation. Light is illuminating on home life at the height and decline of the British Empire, but also on British caste/class in general, and challenging on the continuing issue of domestic sphere politics, and of personal care, in the present era of global capitalism. She also makes a significant contribution to the social history of plumbing, foregrounding the intimate, somatic, dimensions of domestic work (‘Servants were the body’s keepers’). An open partisan for the servants, Light is still in the main fair to Woolf.
Light’s narrative is all the more poignant because she underlines how it could well have been written sooner and even more amply, if the priorities of earlier cultural historians and biographers had been different. Light not only documents the servants’ lives in as much detail as possible but she also reflects on how all parties concerned mythologize, in their different ways, servant life. Her italicised meditations, which preface each chapter, are not always convincing; but the challenging Postscript is excellent in confronting us with the fact that ‘the servant question’ of Woolf’s day has not gone away, but merely transmuted. Light buttonholes the reader, directly asking us to consider precisely who will be ministering to us in our frail old age. She also movingly touches on her own experiences, as she was writing this book, of nursing her husband in his final illness.
As a literary critic, I’m suspicious of biography and of most biographical readings of Woolf’s work, even where there are clear autobiographical elements in her fiction. (See D.H. Lawrence: ‘Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.’) And I find Light’s argument least convincing where she interprets the servant characters in Woolf’s experimental, high modernist fiction as failed realist portraits, in the sense that Woolf’s lack of empathy with or knowledge of the working poor meant she was forced to represent them as ‘exotic or mythic or pathetic’. This approach does not allow for the political, allegorical, and intertextual aspects of Woolf’s writing, and ignores her famous eschewal of the very stock of realist writing: the portrayal of characters. Light relies on rather dated received critical readings of Woolf’s work as concerned with psychological interiority at the expense of somatic life (a misreading of ‘Modern Fiction’). Her central thesis is that Woolf makes servants the figurative repository of reviled bodily functions. She relies on dated biographical readings, stemming from Quentin Bell, that Woolf herself was frigid and lacking all her life in any erotic pleasure. Recent lesbian scholarship suggests otherwise (Eileen Barrett and Pat Cramer, Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings). See, for example, Woolf to her friend and ‘lover’, Violet Dickinson (July 1903): ‘It is astonishing what depths – hot volcanic depths – your finger has stirred in Sparroy’. I’m currently writing a book, Virginia Woolf and the Signifying Dog, so I enjoyed Light’s argument on Woolf’s linking of servitude to the somatic and to animality, and her close attention to Woolf’s canine metaphors. Yet Woolf critically engages the primary binaries of Western philosophical discourse (inherent, for example, in the Cartesian mind/body split); she did not invent them! Light fails to recognise that the canine metaphors Woolf deals in extend to women of all classes, cultures and occupations, including women preachers, artists, musicians and writers and including herself. But this is the very stuff of the feminism and universalism debates to which Light’s book so richly contributes.
Light’s book is the first sustained attempt to examine the lives of Bloomsbury’s servants. It has opened up a rich seam which others will surely mine further. I found myself wishing Light had looked at Woolf’s ‘London Scene’ essays, which were written for the magazine Good Housekeeping between 1931 and 1932, particularly the essay on ‘Great Men’s Houses’ where Woolf describes Thomas Carlyle’s domestic arrangements: ‘Go down into the kitchen. There, in two seconds, one is made acquainted with a fact that escaped the attention of Froude, and yet was of incalculable importancethey had no water laid on. Every drop that the Carlyles used [...] had to be pumped by hand from a well in the kitchen. There is the well at this moment and the pump and the stone trough into which the cold water trickled. And here, too, is the wide and wasteful old grate upon which all kettles had to be boiled if they wanted a hot bath; and here is the cracked yellow tin bath, so deep and so narrow, which had to be filled with the cans of hot water that the maid first pumped and then boiled and then carried up three flights of stairs from the basement.’ Woolf dwells on the fact that this ‘high old house without water, without electric light, without gas fires, full of books and coal smoke and four-poster beds and mahogany cupboards [...] was served by one unfortunate maid.’ Clearly Woolf’s sympathies are all with the unfortunate maid. But she also makes the point that in the hierarchy of this household, Jane Carlyle, as wife, was close in rank to the maid and laboured alongside her in the basement of the house while her husband wrote his great works at the top: ‘All through the mid-Victorian age the house was necessarily a battlefield where daily, summer and winter, mistress and maid fought against dirt and cold for cleanliness and warmth.’ Woolf had grown up in another great Victorian writer’s house (her father was the literary critic, Leslie Stephen), and she had first hand experience of the entire household’s obeisance to him. But Woolf’s own literary vision for revolutionary change in the unequal relations ‘between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children’ was nevertheless greatly enabled, as Light so amply demonstrates, by a household still largely dependent on servants. Woolf wryly observes that the Carlyle household would have been a much happier one ‘if only number 5 Cheyne Row had possessed, as the house agents put it, bath, h. and c., gas fires in the bedrooms, all modern conveniences and indoor sanitation. But then, we reflect, as we cross the worn threshold, Carlyle with hot water laid on would not have been Carlyle; and Mrs. Carlyle without bugs to kill would have been a different woman from the one we know.’ Mrs Woolf did not follow Mrs Carlyle downstairs to join the maid in the kitchen, and she did celebrate in her writing the cook’s emergence upstairs. But Light makes us understand only too well that Woolf without Farrell, Hope, and Boxall, would not have been Woolf.
© Jane Goldman
Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service by Alison Light (Fig Tree, 2007)