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

Ah, Bloomsbury. Virginia Woolf soulful in white linen, T. S. Eliot popping in for tea, Bertrand Russell staying for dinner. Truth, beauty, and the life of the mind. But what about the body? Who washed Virginia’s clothes, cooked her food, scrubbed her floors? Other women, from the other class; servants without whom “there would have been no art, no writing, no ‘Bloomsbury,’ ” as Alison Light superbly illustrates in Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury. Light, a scholar and critic whose grandmother worked as a domestic servant, wants to restore to such women “the respect they deserve.” In this engrossing, elegantly written social history, however, she does far more than that. By examining the largely ignored yet critical relationship between Woolf and her servants — most notably Nellie Boxall, Woolf’s cook for 18 years — Light brilliantly reveals the complex nature of British domestic service and the daily preoccupations of a writer who was both formed and oppressed by the role she inherited. “Won’t be dictated to,” Woolf wrote in her diary in 1924, referring not to the patriarchy but to Nellie after yet another emotional tussle with her cook. “I wanted to live my own life,” a servant declares in 1938. Woolf’s writing enshrines that very sentiment — but not for the servant class whom she regarded as alien and often repulsive. Light neither demonizes nor sanctifies the writer, portraying her instead with fresh insight and compassion. The servants materialize just as vividly, with rooms — even lives — of their own, however cramped, in below-stairs Bloomsbury.