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Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service [Hardcover]

Alison Light
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Aug 2007
Loathing, anger, shame – and deep affection: Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her servants was central to her life. Like thousands of her fellow Britons she relied on live-in domestics for the most intimate of daily tasks. Her cook and parlour maid relieved her of the burden of housework and without them she might never have become a writer. But unlike many of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf was frequently tormented by her dependence on servants. Uniquely, she explored her violent, often vicious, feelings in her diaries, novels and essays. What, the reader might well wonder, was it like for the servants to live with a mistress who so hated giving her orders, and who could be generous and hostile by turns?Through the prism of the writer’s life and work, Alison Light explores the volatile, emotional territory which is the hidden history of domestic service. Compared to most employers in Britain between the wars, Leonard and Virginia Woolf were free and easy. Life in the Bloomsbury circle of writers and artists was often fun. Yet despite being liberal in outlook, these were also households where the differences in upbringing and education were acute: employers and servants were still ‘us’ and ‘them’. The women who worked for the Woolfs, like other domestic servants, have usually been relegated to the margins of history, yet unearthing their lives reveals fascinating stories: of Sophie Farrell, the Victorian cook and ‘family treasure’, who ended her days in a London bed-sit; Lottie Hope, the parlour maid, a foundling, who’d been left on a doorstep like a parcel; and Nellie Boxall, the Woolfs’ cook, who was finally dismissed after sixteen years of rows and reconciliations, only to find herself a more glamorous job. Mrs Woolf and the Servants is a riveting and highly original study of one of Britain’s greatest literary modernists. Ultimately, though, it is also a moving and eloquent testimony to the ways in which individual creativity always needs the support of others.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Fig Tree (2 Aug 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670867179
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670867172
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 15.6 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 188,397 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Fascinating, beautifully written and meticulously researched (Literary Review)

An absorbing investigation, serious, radical and feminist in its politics, entertaining in its delivery (The Independent)

Offers us an invaluable glimpse into the hidden history of domestic service in an absorbing narrative, beautifully written with the sensibility of a poet (The Times)

A compelling portrait of how rich and poor women of this time were locked into a strange and pernicious symbiosis, and a vital warning against social inequality (Telegraph) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From the Inside Flap

'Have I ever felt such wild misery as when talking to servants?
Partly caused by rage at our general ineptitude - we the governors - having
laden ourselves with such a burden, at having let grow on our shoulders
such a cancer, such a growth, such a disease as the poor are.'

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hidden lives 23 Jan 2009
This is a wonderful work of historical research into the lives of those served the Bloomsbury set and for whom 100 and a room of their own was a far-fetched dream. And for all the Woolfs' socialist principles - in theory only - what mean, petty, querulous employers they were. Yes, it must have been difficult sharing one's home with live-in servants, and Virginia expends much time on household bickering and domestic 'scenes' ; but it wouldn't occur to one, nevertheless, to empty one's own chamberpot - or spend one's substantial income on modernising kitchens and bathrooms. One cheers when after the war, the servants' lives expand.
Would have given this book five stars but I got bored with the literary criticism and lengthy passages about Virginia's state of mind.
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39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Domestic bliss? 26 Dec 2007
By Lynette Baines VINE VOICE
This is the story of the relationships between Virginia Woolf & her servants. Woolf's diaries are full of references to the sometimes fraught, sometimes affectionate relationship she had with Nellie Boxall, Lottie Hope and many other women who cooked, cleaned & looked after Virginia, Leonard and others of the Bloomsbury group. However, as there is often very little information about the servants (it's amazing how much the author has discovered), the book is also a history of domestic service from 1860-1940. This is fascinating. As an avid reader of women's fiction written between the wars, I'm intrigued by these domestic relationships. WWII virtually ended the era of live-in servants in British middle-class homes, and the descriptions of poor wages & shocking working conditions here go some way to explaining why women who had experienced the independance of the services refused to go back to someone else's kitchen after the war. As well as being an original look at Woolf from the perspective of the servants, this is essential background for anyone who loves the fiction of Mollie Panter-Downes, E M Delafield or Dorothy Whipple.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 1 April 2008
By Mrs H
This is a great, multi-faceted book, glittering with details of Virginia Woolf's class-cluttered mind but also an intimate exploration to home life for rich and poor women throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Provides among other things a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how individual freedom often depends on the oppression of others: bohemian feminist Virginia Woolf and her lasting work comes to us courtesy of a crack team of wives...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful details, but needs a good edit 5 Dec 2013
Light has done a lot of excellent research. She uses Virginia Woolf's relationship with her servants (often troubled) to give us a history of service in the years from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. She also gives the Woolfs' servants, Sophie, Nellie, Lottie, Louie, Mabel and others, biographies, personalities and a social context. It was a time of social transition. In Victorian times "invisible" servants worked in the basement, emptied the chamber pots and slept in the attic. Forward-thinking Bohemians like the Woolfs wondered if all this was necessary, but didn't know how to look after themselves. Creating new ways of living brought the classes into contact with each other, and this is what Virginia couldn't cope with. She failed to "boundarise" with her cook Nellie Boxall, and felt that Nellie had become too familiar, and a domestic tyrant. Nellie (a gifted cook) eventually went to work for the Charles Laughtons (!) who lived in a superb modernistic flat. The Woolfs delayed spending money on sanitation, heating and electric light. Why should they, when labour was cheap? Obviously, such conditions could not continue, and the "servant class" mainly found other jobs. Some Bohemians were left helpless, having never done even the most basic household tasks for themselves. All this is entertaining and thought-provoking. But this book is NOT "beautifully written". It is plainly written (thank goodness), mainly avoiding acadamese. But it is also sloppy, especially when Light decides to indulge in a bit of fine writing - she scrambles her tenses and garbles her cliches. Some people should not be allowed near an extended metaphor.

Though Virginia Woolf was a socialist, and continued the Victorian habit of doing good to the poor, she was a raging snob who almost thought that the working classes were a different species.
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