The Horror of Dirt: Virginia Woolf and Her Servants

The Horror of Dirt: Virginia Woolf and Her Servants

The Horror of Dirt: Virginia Woolf and Her Servants

Upstairs and downstairs with Virginia, Vanessa and the Bloomsbury set.


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.

Bloomsbury’s servants were part of the last two generations of live-in help in Britain. The idea of doing arduous, messy work that rich or middle-class people considered beneath them came to seem “anachronistic and demeaning,” Light writes, to working-class women who “increasingly had other options: clerical, shop or factory work, work as a waitress or a chambermaid, receptionist, florist, beautician, anything that gave them their evenings or weekends off, the freedom to meet friends, or simply to stay at home.” Beginning in the 1890s, the percentage of young women entering domestic service steadily declined until World War II, when it plummeted sharply. Live-in service then virtually disappeared from all but the richest households. By the 1970s, Irish women and immigrants from other parts of Europe, Asia and the Caribbean were being hired to do the work of housecleaning and baby-minding that English working-class women no longer wanted to do.

In Woolf’s day, the nature of service was also changing. The typical upper-middle-class Victorian household, with its large, specialized staff of servants assigned to different household tasks, was disappearing as couples had fewer children. At the same time, more middle-class families than ever were able to afford a single servant, leading to a new kind of intimacy between servants and employers. In some ways this intimacy made domestic work even more trying: the days were lonelier, and servants found their employers’ pretensions harder to stomach. As Light puts it, “handing a newspaper or the post to one’s employer on a platter was standard parlourmaid practice; in a large household it might feel bearable but when there were only two at home it was humiliating.”

One thing that wasn’t changing rapidly was the work. Technological advances that Americans were quick to adopt–water heaters, vacuum cleaners and other time-saving devices–crept very slowly into British homes. One of the fascinations of Light’s book is its scrub-by-scour account of a servant’s typical day–the beating of rugs and curtains, the emptying of chamber pots, the carrying of buckets of boiling water up many flights of stairs so that the employers could have warmish baths that servants did without, and a great deal more, from dawn until late at night. The kitchen was typically in the basement, which meant cooking with very little light, often with no running hot water, on a temperamental range that needed frequent fueling and stoking.

For the servants, one comfort of Bloomsbury’s social experiments, according to Light, was that they made domestic work more pleasant than it would have been in conventional households. Servants didn’t have to wear uniforms, attend church, wait at tables or do a great deal of “fetching and carrying” for their employers. Many of the Bloomsbury servants stayed for years and eventually enjoyed the glamour of working for famous artists. Light writes that to most members of the upper middle class, the Bloomsbury set’s relations with their servants would have appeared “unbelievably lax.” They were invited to fancy-dress parties thrown by their employers and mingled with the other guests. One of the Woolfs’ maids, Lottie Hope, liked to play practical jokes and “caused much hilarity one Christmas by dropping a marzipan mouse in Virginia’s tea.”

But the sociability and intimacy between employers and servants, the occasional bridging of the gap between classes, was superficial. By the time Virginia and Vanessa ran their own households, their servants were no longer consigned to live in dismal attic or basement rooms, but assumptions of class superiority still dominated the relationship. Though Woolf and her sister had moderate leftist leanings–later in life, under the influence of her husband, Woolf would become active in the newly formed Labour Party–their political beliefs did not translate into a desire to improve the economic situation of their servants. The Woolfs paid their help the meager wages typical of the era, a shockingly small proportion of their income: according to Light, they gave their servants £40 a year when they earned £4,000.

Woolf’s diaries and letters are sprinkled with careless snobbish comments about servants, and her and Vanessa’s dislike of having servants shades easily into disdain for the servants themselves. They make everything “pompous and heavy-footed,” Virginia writes to her sister, who in another letter complains that her “brains are becoming soft…by constant contact with the lower classes” during a vacation when her family and their servants were living in close quarters. “I am sick of the timid spiteful servant mind,” Virginia wrote about Boxall. The sisters often grumble about the “necessity” of having any help at all. They want a simpler life and resent the responsibilities that go with having employees when staying in the country or traveling abroad. “The more I think of it,” Vanessa wrote to Virginia, “the more it seems to me absurd that we should have, as we soon shall, 5 servants to look after a young & able-bodied couple & a baby.” (Vanessa took on a larger staff after having children, but Virginia continued to live with just a cook and a maid for much of her adult life.) Virginia especially, who during her nervous breakdowns was looked after by servants and nurses supervising her eating and rest times as if she were a child, chafed at having bodily needs taken care of by another person. Servants may have been especially vexing figures for Woolf because they gave the lie to the idea of “the fully self-directed, autonomous” life that she aspired to.

Woolf found it difficult to keep her distance from servants, to give orders in a way that established her authority over them (she hated the “measured sweetness” with which servants were supposed to be addressed). Boxall, who worked for Woolf for eighteen years, was an excellent but temperamental cook, and they fought regularly, their rows leaving Woolf surprisingly unsettled and vulnerable. “She doesn’t care for me, or for anything,” Woolf once complained in her diary, as if talking about a school friend or a lover. She schemed for years to let Boxall go, rehearsing the scene in her mind but losing courage at the last minute, or being won over by Boxall’s attempts at peacemaking. Boxall gave and retracted notice dozens of times. She was high-strung and insecure: the parallels with Woolf’s disposition are hard to miss. She looked to Woolf for approval and easily felt slighted. Woolf rarely records the precise substance of Boxall’s grievances (and Boxall left no record), but many of them seem to have had to do with not getting enough attention from her employer, or with being asked to do tasks that she considered beneath her or too strenuous.

Her relationship with Boxall, Woolf wrote in her diary in 1929, would make a great subject for a novel. But there was nothing like it in her fiction, despite her regular attempts to include more of what she calls “low life scenes” in her work. Light looks at Woolf’s early efforts to create servant characters, such as Chailey in The Voyage Out, a longtime servant for the Vinrace family in her 50s, who is grieving over the death of her mistress. Though Woolf is an astute critic of other writers’ sentimental working-class characters, her portraits of servants, many of them unpublished (she was conscious of their limitations), tend to be versions of the sentimental or pathetic “old retainer” who overidentifies with her employer’s family and has no independent inner life.

Otherwise, servants appear in her novels fleetingly, never fully conscious; they tend to be willing and enthusiastic helpers of their mistresses or heavily symbolic figures, like Mrs. McNab in To the Lighthouse, the cleaning woman who beats back the wilderness that has taken over the Ramsay family’s property so that they can re-enter the novel, reoccupy their house and resume their family drama. Early drafts of The Waves incorporated voices of characters from across the social spectrum, including that of a kitchen maid, but Woolf later edited them out and limited the novel to six upper-middle-class characters who refer to their servants only in passing. It’s not clear exactly why she did so, and Light wonders if she realized “how much her characterization was tinged with revulsion.” One excised scene had Florrie, the kitchen maid, comforting herself after being scolded by eating “a great lump of greasy white heavenly fat”–an image that would have been disgusting to Woolf, with her distaste for descriptions of eating and other bodily functions. In her diaries, too, she wasn’t able–or didn’t bother–to make a more coherent narrative of her relationship with Boxall, to explain it to herself honestly. “There was no development in the scenes with Nellie,” Light observes; “they merely repeated.”

Even as the Woolfs earned more money, they continued to whittle down their already modest staff. They let their maid Lottie Hope go in 1924, leaving them only with Boxall, and in the end she was not spared either: Woolf finally dismissed her in 1934. After a brief spell with another live-in servant, Virginia and Leonard made do for the first time without live-in help, hiring only a “daily,” a maid who came for a few hours each day to do the cleaning and some of the cooking, and a gardener to look after the grounds of their country house, where they spent most of their time. The Woolfs exulted in the new sense of peace and privacy, which seems, among other things, a testament to the uncomfortable intimacy of their relationship with their servants and the considerable emotional energy that living with servants demanded of them. Virginia learned to cook and shop for groceries; she mentions her homemade dinners frequently in her letters with some pride and irony at finding herself in the role of a busy housewife. Her meals became increasingly more sophisticated. In the afternoons the Woolfs had the house to themselves: for the first time in their lives, well into middle age, they were completely alone together. They were triumphant, Virginia reveling in the freedom of “eating one’s dinner off a table anywhere, having cooked it previously.”

As her emotional state deteriorated in the last months of her life, Woolf, encouraged by her husband and her doctor, did even more work around the house. She told her doctor that she liked to scrub floors when she was having trouble writing, because “it took her mind off.” Light says that at one point, “Virginia spent two hours carpet-beating, then watched as the flakes of dust continued to flock down on to the books she had just dusted. ‘I’d no notion,’ she wrote to [her friend] Ethel [Smyth], ‘having always a servant, of the horror of dirt.'” Woolf spent the last morning of her life helping her daily do the dusting.

Light compares Woolf and Boxall to a mutually dependent couple, but the evidence for such an attachment seems tenuous, or at least hard to separate from the economic entanglements that bound them. And it’s hard to know just how much weight to give to the fact that it was Boxall, and not someone else, who drew the curtains and cooked the roasts during the most productive years of Woolf’s career. It seems part of the cruel logic of servitude that the servant, who in some ways takes over the traditional work of a wife, is precisely not able to exert the kind of influence over her mistress that a wife does over her husband, or to serve as a muse to the writer who employs her. Despite the greater intimacy and informality of Bloomsbury, a servant still seems most appreciated when she does her work unobtrusively and cheerfully, and she is otherwise replaceable–however long it might take her boss to get up the nerve to fire her.

Of course, employers were also replaceable. After she was dismissed by the Woolfs, Boxall found a job that suited her even better, working for actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, friends of the Woolfs who had a flat in Gordon Square. They had the latest modern kitchen appliances and flush toilets, they seemed to have no trouble getting along with Boxall and they were more glamorous than the Woolfs, hosting fellow stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Marlene Dietrich and other film and theater luminaries.

Light describes former domestic servants in the 1950s and ’60s looking back on their old lives as if from a hangover. Social changes had come so quickly and definitively that the culture of service and subservience they had taken for granted as young women seemed impossibly antiquated: “When they looked back in old age the girls who had gone into service were often mystified, sometimes furious or appalled, that they had emptied those earth-closets, scrubbed the stone flags, washed their employers’ clothes.”

Boxall’s later years weren’t so gloomy. When Laughton and Lanchester moved to California in 1939, Boxall returned to her native Surrey to work in a hospital canteen and live with her brother and Lottie Hope. She was middle-aged by then and had saved enough money to buy a house, one of the first people in her neighborhood to do so (and also the first to have an indoor toilet put in). Her great-niece and neighborhood children remember her as seeming like “a lady” and “a notch higher in her manner” than their families, and also as very bossy, “a forceful character,” perhaps finally able to express a part of her personality that she had necessarily suppressed for years.

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