Light, a British academic and journalist, has illuminated Woolf's upstairs-downstairs life in a manner intended to exemplify the broader socioeconomic shifts of the first third of the 20th century, deftly spanning the intimate ("Who emptied the sewage was a serious issue among the servants since it affected their earnings and their self-respect"), the socio-historical and the literary. The result is an absorbing and complex portrait of Woolf's particular relation to domestics and domesticity (in her later years, amazingly, she learned to cook), but also an analysis of the shifting mores of the period and, most particularly, of the often forgotten individuals whose faithful service to the Woolfs and to servant-swapping Bloomsbury enabled the creation of much high-modernist art.
The New York Times
…superbly researched, often passionately eloquent, and enthralling throughout…Mrs. Woolf and the Servants is no dryly academic sociological study. It is an inquiry into the fundamental nature of human intimacy.
The Washington Post
Virginia Woolf is a feminist icon, and her husband, Leonard, was a committed socialist and supporter of workers' rights. Yet, says Light, in this fresh take on Bloomsbury, the couple perpetuated the class system by paying a pittance to their charwoman. In her attempt to restore the servants to the Bloomsbury story, Light also ruminates about whether the dependence of Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, on their assorted live-in maids and cooks plays havoc with the idealized image of them as "bohemian, free women creating a new kind of life." Light also dissects Woolf's fictional servants as a window into contemporary social class prejudices and delves into the personal histories of Woolf's servants in context with their peers. British scholar Light (Forever England), the granddaughter of a live-in domestic, often seems to be pushing a personal agenda, and her insistence that without the hard work of the servants there would have been no Bloomsbury is unconvincing, yet her analyses of both the Bloomsbury notables and the servant class of their time are deft and engrossing. Illus. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Light (Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars) takes a different approach to Virginia Woolf by examining not only her life but also the lives of the domestic servants who worked for her. She provides an interesting social history of the maids, cooks, and other domestics who served Woolf and her family, interspersing their stories with Woolf's. Born into a wealthy family, Woolf never knew a world without domestic help, but she often struggled with her employees. The five lengthy sections focus on the different servants who worked for Woolf. The writer and her family left a plethora of letters, but the domestics in their employ left little correspondence or memoirs, which made presenting their side of the story challenging. Light, whose grandmother worked as a kitchen maid, succeeds in describing the hardships of a domestic's life. This literary Upstairs/Downstairs is recommended for all academic libraries that support English literature and English history collections.
Erica Swenson Danowitz
The largely untold stories of the live-in servants who eased, enriched, complicated and frustrated the domestic tranquility of Virginia Woolf and others in her circle. Light (History/Univ. of East London; Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars, 1991, etc.) brings all her scholarly skills and imagination to bear on the task of illuminating the lives of people whom history has often ignored. (See also: Ruth Brandon's Governess, 2008.) Reading Woolf's diaries and letters, the author was surprised by the emotional, often negative energy the novelist invested in her servants. This sent Light back into the fiction-she spends some time discussing the roles of servants in Woolf's novels-and into family and public records, where she discovered a surprising amount of material on the people who served the writer from cradle to grave. Growing up in the cosseted class, sisters Virginia and Vanessa Stephens could neither cook nor clean nor do much of anything for themselves until war and marriage altered their circumstances. The author focuses on several individuals, among them Sophie Farrell, who worked for the family for a half-century, and Nellie Boxall, whose contentious choreography with Virginia enlivens much of the text. When Woolf finally dismissed her, Nellie landed in the household of notable English actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Although Light is most interested in humanizing the servants, she also offers heavy but digestible sections of social history and literary criticism. We learn about the rise and fall of domestic service, and the author contrasts Woolf's liberalism in her fiction with her class-consciousness in her kitchen.Light also savages the caricatures of the Woolf servants in the 2003 film The Hours. Only the cliche-ridden prose ("in the same boat," "stuck to her guns") slightly mars this groundbreaking work of scholarship. An essential addition to the alpine pile of books about Woolf. Agent: Kerry Glencorse/David Godwin Associates
“This is a bold, impressive and important rewriting of a slice of British social history.” Guardian
“An absorbing and complex portrait of Woolf's particular relation to domestics and domesticity, but also an analysis of the shifting mores of the period.” New York Times Book Review
“Eye-opening… Light enriches the history of Bloomsbury by adding to it the stories of Nellie, Lottie and the other women and men whose manual labor sustained it.” Chicago Tribune