Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants:  An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light (2008, 376 pages, Non-Fiction)

A  few months ago I won a copy of The Waves by Virginia Woolf.   I had never up to that point read any of Virginia Woolf's work and I really was glad I now had the motivation to do so.   I liked The Waves a lot while conceding I was far from "understanding" it.   I then read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando.   I also read a few of her better know short stories and a couple of essays.    I then had pretty much decided to start The Reading Life Virginia Woolf Project which would involved reading at least all the fiction of Woolf.   If you take a look at it, the sheer volume of it is not real huge as most of her works are under 300 pages.   I also read three very good biographies related to Woolf and her intimates.   I read Hermione Lee's wonderful biography Virginia Woolf.   I then read Victoria Glendinning's biographies of Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, and also her biography of  Vita Sackville-West, considered to be the inspiration for the lead character in Orlando.  I also read two of Woolf's shorter works, Jacob's Room and Flush.

As you read these secondary works and the novels of Woolf you begin to wonder who does the cooking, who cleans the clothes, who washes the dishes,   who scrubs the floors, who serves the meals?     Mrs.  Woolf and the Servants  by Alison Light goes a very long way toward answering  these questions.   Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941) always had full time servants from  the day she was born until her death.      Mrs. Woolf and the Servants is more than just a fascinating book about Virginia Woolf.   It is also a very illuminating social history of the domestic servant in England from the 1880s up to WWII.     Light  made me reflect  when she said no more than 100 years ago most women with jobs were servants.     To be a servant in some cases was to endure a life of constant petty humiliations designed to insure the servant knew who the master was.   Of course many who had servants said things like "our servants are practically members of the family" and meant it.      What that  translated to in practice varied a lot.    Most servants did not stay with their employers very long and with the changing social condition in England brought on by the demand for women in factory jobs in WWII   fewer and fewer women "went into service".   There were even social commentators who saw the decline of women going into services jobs as a sign of the decline of British society.     Light  helps us understand all these issues.

Having full time servants since birth effects people deeply just as growing up knowing at 13 or 14 you will "go into service" has its own devastating effect.   My guess is most book bloggers located in the Philippines have full time servants and probably grew up with servants living in the house.   We have to ponder as parents how this will shape our children's perceptions of life.   

I was very struck by something Light said about Katherine Mansfield.   Mansfield, I think, grew up with full time servants.    Once she  left her parents home in New Zealand she at times had to cook her own food, wash her own dishes etc.   Light says the first time Mansfield washed a cooking dish and found out that fat from mutton did not dissolve in water and go down the drain she began weeping.   It seems many of the young Bohemians of post WWI London were willing to indulge in all sorts of social and sexual experimentation as long as it did not mean you had to answer your own door or wash your own linen.

Light gives us exact details about the lives of many people that worked for Virginia Woolf.    In a very interesting postscript to the book she gives us short biographies of the servants who worked longest for Virginia and Leonard Woolf.     

I think anyone interested in Virginia Woolf and her circle would really enjoy reading this book.   I know I did. It also is a very good work of social history of the life of women "in service" in the first half of the 20th century.    I think Mrs. Woolf and the Servants:  An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury is a valuable contribution to the social  history of women.

I will next be posting on A Room of Her Own.

Alison Light is a part-time professor of modern literature at New Castle University and edited Flush for Penguin Classics.

Mel u


Stefanie said...

You know I've had my eye on this book for some time now. It sounds really good and will be an interesting coutnerpoint to Woolf's frequent complaints about her servants in her diaries. Nice review!

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I enjoy your blog quite a bit. I've not read Virginia Woolf before, but am recently re-entering back into the world of classics with some Edith Wharton and Daphne du Maurier. I'd be interested to also jump into Katherine Mansfield's works as well, based on your insightful reviews.

Mystica said...

I did not know of this particular book and thanks for highlighting this. Domestic help is still very big in Asia (anyway in Sri Lanka it is) I did not think of it affecting one's way of thinking. It certainly makes one appreciate them and the sheer volume of work involved when you have to live without them. As in right now for me in Melbourne!

Suko said...

This is a very interesting sounding book and review, Mel. Of course, if a woman is busy all day cooking and cleaning and taking care of children, she cannot also be writing. The same is true of a man: if he is out in the field, working, or doing endless chores, he is probably not also writing, or thinking about doing so.

I look forward to your review of A Room of One's Own.