- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

MRS. WOOLF AND THE SERVANTS
By Alison Light
Bloomsbury, $30, 400 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

It is amusing that contemporary feminists who think of Virginia Woolf as their patron saint are usually shocked when they hear her recorded voice. Instead of some reflection of their own intonations, they are confronted by plummy tones that are — horror of horrors in today’s cultural climate — indubitably upper-class! A small thing, but indicative of a larger phenomenon: In projecting current values onto figures from the past — after all Woolf was born a century and a quarter ago and has been dead nearly 70 years — it is easy to forget that people who live IN a certain time are apt to be OF it as well.

Imagine then the culture shock for such people when they realize that their pioneering icon depended on at least one — and usually more — of her sisters (in feminist parlance anyway) to cook, clean and even empty her chamber pot. And if all this was not apparent to them in Woolf’s writings — and people are never so blind as when encountering something they are not expecting — now along comes “Mrs. Woolf and the Servants,” an authoritative, detailed account of the dynamic relationship between Virginia Woolf and the domestic help that was so crucial to her existence as a woman and a writer.

An English author and academic, Alison Light is clear-eyed and wise about her chosen topic. Attuned to the huge sociological changes in 20th-century Britain, she is certainly not one to judge the past solely by today’s standards. She has not only done her research, but brings to her task some unique advantages: Her grandmother was in domestic service, working her way through the travails of those harsh days, and Ms. Light was brought up on first-hand accounts of what it was actually like to be a servant in Woolf’s time. When you are a dealing with as good a writer as Virginia Woolf, whose voice in whatever she wrote, whether casual jottings in a diary or artfully crafted fiction, is so resonant as to tend toward the overwhelming, it is necessary to remember that there are other human beings involved in this story.

And indeed a particular feature of “Mrs. Woolf and the Servants” is its emphasis on the humanity of these women. Although well-versed in and informed by the sociological background, Ms. Light is careful to present rounded portraits of these people who played such an important role in the Woolf household. We see not only Nellie and Lottie and the others in their role as servants, but we learn about their background, their private lives, and what happened to them after they left service. There are even minibiographies of them at the end of the volume. Although Virginia Woolf is the focus of the book, its author does not get stuck in her worldview alone, something that is essential when dealing with someone who, in firing a longtime servant, “felt ‘executioner & the executed in one.’”

Certainly it is true that women of Woolf’s age and class expected almost as a right to be served by other females, but her espousal of women’s rights raises the question of her hypocrisy. When she talked of a room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year as necessary to female independence, she was apparently assuming that this included a servant to free her from drudgery. And since she paid her own servants 40 pounds a year even when she herself was earning 100 times that amount, this “necessity” would have fallen comfortably within the projected budget. What price sisterhood then?

For as always with Woolf, it comes down to her rules applying to her own kind. If you weren’t “one of us,” you just weren’t entitled to much. This is the side of Bloomsbury that is rebarbative: Not only the hypocrisy, but in general the kind of thinking that gives elitism a bad name. In 1929, Woolf listened with her maid Nellie to the results of the first election to be broadcast on the radio:

“Virginia was ‘shocked’ when Nellie said at tea, ‘We are winning,’ shocked to think that both she and Nellie wanted the Labour Party to win. ‘Why?’, Virginia asked herself, characteristically probing the sore spot, ‘partly that I don’t want to be ruled by Nellie. I think to be ruled by Nellie and Lottie would be a disaster.’ It hadn’t occurred to her that while Leonard talked to miners, there might be a common political cause between mistress and maid.”

As may be seen from this passage, Ms. Light is adept at probing Woolf’s sore spots as well, exposing the limitations of the credo she so blithely espoused. And in a later incident in the book, her views come under more of this devastating and discomfitting searchlight:

“As late as February 1940, when Virginia had written sympathetically in her diary of Jewish persecution abroad, she found common ground in social snobbery while talking with the South African Dr. Rita Hinden (formerly Rebecca Gesundheit) of the Fabian Colonial Bureau: ‘we discussed how nice ordinary people are. Then why are they so repulsive in the mass?’ She was interested to hear that Dr. Hinden found the African natives smelt, but their shared disgust didn’t prevent Virginia from finding her a ‘cheap hard Jewess.’”

Clearly, Ms. Light has succeeded in showing us a lot more about Virginia Woolf than simply how she felt about Nellie and Lottie.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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