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Mrs. Woolf and the Servants

A look at the servants who helped to create a lifestyle for Virgina Woolf and the Bloomsbury crowd.

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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.


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