Mrs. Woolf and the Servants
An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury
By Alison Light BLOOMSBURY PRESS Copyright © 2008 Alison Light
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59691-560-2
Chapter One The Family Treasure
Does housekeeping interest you at all? I think it really ought to be just as good as writing, and I never see - as I argued the other day with Nessa - where the separation between the two comes in. At least if you must put books on one side and life on t'other, each is a poor and bloodless thing. But my theory is that they mix indistinguishably
Virginia Stephen to Violet Dickinson, December 1906
For Virginia Woolf the past was a house. It was a high old house of several storeys off a narrow, quiet cul-de-sac in a respectable and prosperous part of London: 22 Hyde Park Gate in South Kensington was her home until she was twenty-two and she returned to it constantly in her imagination and in her writing. It was a house full of 'small, oddly shaped rooms', which accommodated her parents' three families - the older Duckworth children from Julia Stephen's first marriage, the younger four Stephen siblings all born there, and Laura Makepeace Stephen, the child of Leslie Stephen's first marriage to one of Thackeray's daughters, 'the idiot', who ended her life in an asylum. Crowded, shared, but also segregated, the house was a space divided between parents and children, men and women, masters and servants. A place of retreat, it was also a workplace. Seven people waited on another eleven; they slept and ate there, in the attics and the basement, living a parallel life. This was the house with its unthinking, pellmell family life, like a great ship packed to the gunnels or a ship of fools, which sailed on blithely for thirteen years of Virginia Stephen's life only to be shipwrecked by her mother's death, 'the greatest disaster that could happen'.
As a child Virginia Stephen was amused and irritated by the servants, the first Pauline, for instance, slow and ruminative, with her odd English-German, fancying herself too good for a maid ('too hard work for that cow' Virginia had scribbled wickedly in her journal when she was fifteen), the clumsy second Pauline with the creaking boots, or the Irish slopper, shrinking when one passed. Jenny, Ellen, Florrie, Maud - they were so straitlaced it was fun shocking them with swearwords and naughtiness or trying to light fires better than they, but really one was too busy with one's own affairs (she was reading Carlyle on the French Revolution, borrowed from her father's library). They were such silly creatures, moved to tears and stillness, 'like tamed beasts', when they listened to music outside the drawing-room door. Yes, she wrote knowingly, their silence was what one craved above all.
Like other upper-middle-class girls, Virginia Stephen lived a cosseted existence, cared for by the servants. She'd been kept clean, fed and watered by them ever since the nursery. She woke to find the curtains drawn and jugs of water placed beside her wash-basin; her clothes - mended, laundered, brushed - were laid out for her; there was help on hand for buttoning boots or putting up her hair with the wretched pins. Of course no one in her circle shopped for food, let alone cooked an egg, or picked up their own clothes from the floor. For young ladies like Miss Stephen servants were largely unremarkable, simply the backdrop to the greater and more interesting drama of growing up. In the diary with which she was experimenting they naturally had the bit-parts, allowing her the lead role. Mocking their antics, or foibles was a matter of playacting or showing off, a bravura performance, since for all her condescension Miss Stephen was more dependent than the skivvy: she couldn't give notice to leave. And 'Ginia' or Jinny, as her father called her, was especially vulnerable since she was prone - as she noted gaily in her journal - to 'lose her wits'. Writing about the servants was light relief, it turned life at Hyde Park Gate into a silly domestic comedy like those French plays at the Criterion or the Playhouse which her father took her to. Servants belonged to a commonsensical world of order and structure, while what happened in the family - madness, death, mourning - took place in a more brutal universe. At times in the Stephen household the drama of growing up seemed worse than tragic: life seemed senseless and shapeless; it had no plot.
Most of the servants at Hyde Park Gate came and went. The Stephens were merely a chapter in their own busy live. Sophie Farrell, the family cook, was the exception. She joined the household in the 1880s and went on working for the family for fifty years. Her life spanned Virginia's, and she kept alive the connection with the values and habits associated with Virginia's long-dead parents, and especially her mother. Virginia kept in touch with Sophie through the years. She became 'old Sophy', an archaic figure in Virginia's imagination, a relic or survival from the past. For Sophie Farrell the celebrated Mrs Leonard Woolf was 'Miss Genia', a nervous, cheerful and sweet little girl.
In the late 1930s when Virginia began her memoirs, she was, like many of us, tempted into nostalgia. Reliving the long warm summers of childhood when the whole family decamped from London to Cornwall, she conjured up feelings of the 'purest ecstasy', of lying in the nursery listening to the waves break on the shore. But immediately she halted this drift. Childhood was also the place of suffering and despair, of waves that smashed rather than lulled. Few now were left who had shared or remembered those early years. She thought OF Sophie Farrell, who had always gone with them to St Ives, and how as children up in the nursery they had lowered down a basket on a string to the kitchen; if Sophie was in a good mood she would fill it with treats, if in a temper she might cut the thread. Now, half a century later, Virginia wondered how the servants had stood their lives. The differences were so horribly apparent - the black beetles and the darkness in Sophie's basement, the threadbare carpet in the maids' attics which had embarrassed even her mother. Only in childhood was it possible to turn a blind eye. Perhaps not even then. Even then the obstinate presence of other people broke in on one's longings and fantasies; the basket came back empty rather than full.
SOPHIE FARRELL AND JULIA STEPHEN
Among the very few mementoes of the servants which can be found in the Virginia Woolf archives at Sussex University are four letters from Sophia Farrell, written to Virginia in the 1930s. After Sophie had retired, Virginia sent her an annual gift of u10, though Sophie had not been in the service of the Stephens for many years but had been working for the Duckworths, the other branch of Virginia's family. 'You are much too good to me,' Sophie writes over and again in her Christmas thank-you letters. 'I don't deserve such kindness. I am sure I don't.' 'I feel so unworthy of it all,' she reiterates. 'What a dear good generious [sic] lady you are to be so good & kind to me.' Sophie writes as she talks and spells 'by ear', her careful hand taking pains to be read. Her script belongs to an age when the majority of poor children were lucky to get their 'letters'. Virginia's flowing hand, by contrast, has all the casual illegibility of the socially confident. Always Sophie signs herself 'your obedient servant' or 'yours obediently, Sophia'. A conventional enough tag, 'I remain your obedient servant' might have been found at the bottom of letters from solicitors or officials well into the twentieth century. In Sophia Farrell's case it was not merely a form of words.
In the letters Sophie is both humble and snobbish, frequently mentioning her connection to the family and reminding Virginia how long she has known her: in December 1935, for instance, she calculates 'it will be 50 years on the 8th of next April that I first saw you', which means that she began her service to Julia and Leslie Stephen in the spring of 1886 when Virginia was four years old. The following Christmas of 1936 she mentions again, 'it's 50 years last Friday that I first cooked your Christmas dinner'. What news, she asks, of 'Miss Nessa and her charming children' or 'Master Adrian', how clever 'Master Julian' must be, how grateful she is that 'Mr and Mrs Gerald' (Duckworth) gave her luncheon or that she spent Christmas with Lady Margaret. How could someone who was shunted between members of the Stephen family when it suited them, unceremoniously dropped when they no longer needed her, who earnt a pittance compared to their substantial incomes, and who ultimately was left in old age with handouts and a rented room, be so content with the scraps from their table? Yet not a hint, not a scintilla of resentment; rather the reverse - 'Still I feel young & allway happy. I wish it all could come over again.'
Sophie's letters have a directness and a pathos but even so they make dodgy evidence. Letters are always written with one eye on the recipient, 'to spray an atmosphere round one', as Virginia once put it, and the image of the devoted and loyal old retainer was what Sophie wanted to create. In the old adage a servant is only as good as his master and Sophie's deliberate self-abasement is, paradoxically, the source of her self-esteem. The letters display Sophie's character by offering a testimonial to the family. And each declaration of her long service also celebrates her pride in her own longevity, the fact of survival, an achievement in itself for the labouring poor. 'I allways feel so proud that I was your servant for so many years,' she wrote to the famous author in December 1939. 'It gives me so much to think of now I am old. For in a little over a year I shall be 80.' After fifty years of being a servant, if Sophie Farrell could no longer believe in the ideals of service and in her own usefulness, what sense would she make of her life?
Hardly any letters from the Woolfs' servants were kept. Live-in servants naturally had few occasions to write them and the rest of Sophie's correspondence has disappeared. Virginia - or Leonard - probably held on to these few because they had passing references to the old days at Hyde Park Gate and St Ives. Virginia's relationship to Sophie was inherited from her mother and was part of her own prehistory, the early years of childhood before her mother's death. In Virginia's fiction and essays the figure of the Victorian servant, shadowy versions of Sophie, conjured a complex mixture of feelings, of longing, of rage and of guilt. In one of her manifestations the Victorian servant was the good servant who gave unstintingly, a nurturing, maternal presence. She was also an embodiment of dependence, which for a later generation looked less like love or loyalty than power and subservience, and for Virginia herself was an acute reminder of her own defencelessness.
* * *
Nothing is dearer to the conservative imagination, be it that of the master or the servant, than the figure of 'the family treasure', the old retainer become friend, or indeed 'almost a member of the family' (a great deal depends upon that 'almost'). Yet this nostalgic vision obscures how temporary and mobile a form of employment service actually was. Very few of Sophie's generation, born in the middle of the nineteenth century, stayed in their 'places' for more than a year or two; most changed situations far more frequently, and the majority left to get married. In the 1860s there were over a million servants and around 400,000 single-servant households in Britain. Nearly 40 per cent of all women servants were aged under twenty. Like scores of others before and since her time, Sophie Farrell was not born a servant but had service thrust upon her; like so many others, she was a migrant, travelling hundreds of miles to the city to live and work in a stranger's house. She was propelled into serving others by a society which had no other use for poor girls from the country, though she, like the other servants in this book, was fortunate in her employers, and worked hard to make something of what had been made of her.
Though its cities grew at an astonishing rate and the urban population's demand for servants grew with it, Britain in the mid-nineteenth century was still a predominantly agricultural society and work on the land was the largest employer of the nation. Domestic service came second, but it was the chief employer of women. Since the enclosure of land in the eighteenth century, however, with the disappearance of smallholdings and the smaller farms, female servants who had formerly worked in husbandry, as dairymaids, on the land or as house servants, were finding fewer and fewer jobs. Employment at the 'big house' on country estates was always hard to come by and in the last quarter of the nineteenth century the agricultural depression drove more and more country men and women into the towns. Sophie was one of those country girls who made up the staple of urban domestic servants, driven into service by sheer economics as much as by any desire to serve.
Sophia Farrell was born on 13 May 1861 in Ranby, a tiny village on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds, whose smooth, rolling chalk uplands, marked by steep hills and dotted with woodlands, were quite unlike the flat stretches of marsh or fen country elsewhere in the county. In Ranby the Farrells lived in one of the cottages at Cross Road, next to the estate of the local landowner, Sir Francis Otter, for whom Charles Farrell, Sophie's father, was a gardener. Her mother, Ann, was a laundress on the estate. Otter was small fry as far as the county went but Ranby with its handful of tenants was effectively his fiefdom. The Farrells had two other little girls, Frances and Mary, Sophie's older sisters, and the census for 1861 also gives another domestic servant as lodging with the Farrell family, Emma Richardson, who was eighteen. Most likely she too worked for the estate. Within two or three years the family had moved to West Barkwith, a few miles away, equally tiny and remote. In the 1860s there were about 150 inhabitants in the village, mostly labourers working for a few farms; there was the church, All Saints, and the rectory. Sophie's father got a job working for the rector, the Reverend Edward Archer (MA, Trinity College Dublin), as a groom, looking after the horses and the garden. Sophie's childhood was spent in the purlieus of the rectory.
In a later sketch of a family cook, based on her talks with Sophie, Virginia Woolf recast her as 'Biddy Brien', once an 'O' Brien' and a Catholic. If the Farrells were originally O'Farrell, the evidence is hard to find. It's just possible that they emigrated from Ireland in the 1820s when the Irish first came over to Lincolnshire in large numbers for the harvest. Sophie's grandfather Michael Farrell can be found in Binbrook, another village on the Wolds, where labourers hired themselves out for seasonal tasks; unlike West Barkwith, it was an 'open' village (with an absentee landlord) and had a history of migration and discontent. Sophie's aunt, Hannah, was born in Binbrook but her father, Charles, grew up in the market town of Louth, and both were baptized Protestants. With its elegant Georgian streets, Louth was a prosperous place with plenty of carriage-folk and coaching inns, and at the time of the census of 1851, when he reached his majority, Charles was living there with Hannah and his brother-in-law Edward, working as a groom. In 1859 he married Ann Brown, a local girl, the daughter of a labourer. She made her mark in the register since she could not write her own name. Charles gave his father's profession as 'stonemason'.
Excerpted from Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light Copyright © 2008 by Alison Light. Excerpted by permission.
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