When, in 1904, Virginia and Vanessa Stephen and their two brothers left the well-appointed Kensington house of their late parents for their own place in bohemian Bloomsbury, they were full of ideas about how one should live–and think, talk, write and paint–in the new century. They wanted to escape many of the formalities of the Victorian household in which they had grown up: the heavy furniture, darkened rooms, antimacassars and formal dinners. Vanessa painted the walls of their new home white and decorated it with mirrors and Indian shawls. Living in various configurations with their friends and later their spouses and paramours, the sisters orchestrated a series of domestic experiments, scandalous to their aunts and cousins, which ranged from not using table napkins to sharing a house with unmarried men, as Virginia did with her younger brother, Adrian, and their friends John Maynard Keynes and Leonard Woolf, who would later become her husband.
The idea of having no servants, however, was never considered. Although Bloomsbury residences had some modern conveniences, such as electric light, the cooking and cleaning would still have taken two people the entire day. (The living conditions were even more primitive at country houses, so much so that the servants generally hated to work there.) The Stephen siblings brought to Bloomsbury the family’s longtime cook, Sophia Farrell, and a maid, Maud Chart. This was a small staff of help by the upper-middle-class standards of the day: in the Kensington house, six or seven servants had attended to the Stephen clan, which numbered ten. By retaining Farrell and Chart, Virginia and Vanessa sought a compromise. A large staff like the one their mother had employed demanded a lot of time and effort: they would have had to hire and train the servants, resolve disputes between them and possibly supervise their work. But with too few servants, they also would have had to steal time from their writing and painting, since some housekeeping chores would have fallen to them.
Woolf did not feel rich when she was in her 20s, nor was she idle–she started earning money by writing book reviews and articles soon after leaving home–but she and her siblings, and many of the artists and writers in their inner circle of friends, relied on some sort of unearned family money for support. When, in A Room of One’s Own, which she wrote when she was in her 40s, Woolf identifies poverty as a central obstacle for women writers, she is talking about the relative poverty of women compared with the wealth of their husbands and brothers–men of their own class, by which she meant the middle and upper classes.
In A Room of One’s Own Woolf also invents a hypothetical “Shakespeare’s sister,” who shares her brother’s literary genius but dies in penniless obscurity because a woman in Elizabethan England would never have enjoyed the opportunity to exercise her talents. One can imagine another hypothetical figure, “Woolf’s maid,” a poor woman in Georgian England who has to work for a living from the age of 13, cleaning up after the famous writer. After all, Woolf’s famous formulation that a woman writer must have £500 a year and the solitude of her own room in which to write presumes implicitly that there will be servants to make the writer’s meals and clean her house. Many male writers could rely on wives to keep house–as did Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves–even when they couldn’t afford servants. For an ambitious female writer, the only hope was to be able to hire poorer, less educated women to take care of her and her family’s household needs.
In Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, a mix of social history, biography and literary criticism, Alison Light takes a sustained look at these servants and their relationships with their artistic, semibohemian, upper-middle-class employers. Though Light spends equal time upstairs and downstairs, the dominant figure of the book is Woolf. The novelist and her friends, of course, left behind a far more voluminous archive of diaries and letters than their servants did, but Woolf’s central place in the book also reflects Light’s literary interests. Light explains that she became curious about Bloomsbury’s servants when she realized while reading Woolf’s diaries how often, and how “viciously,” Woolf wrote about her longtime cook, Nellie Boxall. “Virginia’s relationship with Nellie was as enduring, intimate and intense as any in her life, but it was at an oblique angle to it…. Most literary critics have kept it at arm’s length or shunted it off into social history.” Light digs deeper into Woolf’s experience with servants and pieces together the servants’ stories–a method that allows her to examine, from fresh angles, the institution of domestic servitude, which intimately bound together women of different classes who thought they had little in common and often found each other baffling. Sometimes Light’s subtle analysis gets lost in the sea of biographical and historical details, but it’s hard to complain when the details are so interesting, forming an absorbing collective history of servants in Britain at a time when the culture of domestic service was quickly changing.