In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Why we have them I can’t thinkRosemary Hill
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Vol. 29 No. 16 · 16 August 2007

Why we have them I can’t think

Rosemary Hill

Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service 
by Alison Light.
Fig Tree, 376 pp., £20, August 2007, 978 0 670 86717 2
Show More
Show More

Ann Fleming once remarked that she was so depressed that ‘last night I would have put my head in the gas oven, if I wasn’t too frightened of the cook to go into the kitchen.’ The uneasy balance of power between domestic servants and their masters and mistresses, especially mistresses, is the theme of Alison Light’s study of the home life of Virginia Woolf, whose complicated relationship with her own cook, Nellie Boxall, involved a degree of intimidation on both sides. The sight of Virginia and Leonard pacing the squares of Bloomsbury, well out of earshot, anxiously discussing what to do about Nellie is one of many moments when Light lets us see them, as the servants did, from unexpected and sometimes undignified angles.

Her contention that Woolf’s relationship with Nellie was one of the most important and reluctantly intimate of her life is borne out by the index of the volume of Woolf’s Diary for 1920-24, where the entries under ‘Boxall, Nelly’ (Woolf consistently misspelled her name) are as numerous as those for ‘Carrington, Dora’ and tell their own story: ‘infested; declares herself dying; taken worse; never to recover; her vapours; still diseased; healthy in all but teeth; recovered, returns; panic struck; threatens cheap meal; hospital visiting; under sentence, presents ultimatum; will stay on; moping but loyal’. There was to be another decade of rows and scenes before Nellie was finally fired. Light’s other argument, that Woolf’s attitude to working women, the ‘obnoxious views’ expressed in the diaries, haunt her fiction and ‘set … a limit to what she can achieve’ as a writer, is more debatable.

Born in 1882, the young Virginia Stephen grew up in a society in which service, either giving or receiving it, was the defining relationship of domestic life, particularly for women. By 1850, Light tells us, 80 per cent of servants were female and they were mostly answerable to the mistress of the house. So, she argues, to a great extent ‘the history of service is the history of British women,’ if a largely unwritten and unregarded one. It is also, her book reveals incidentally, a minor theme in the history of architecture. The Stephens’ home at 22 Hyde Park Gate had a staff of seven to look after a household of 11. It was a tall terraced house which the family extended yet further upwards, and if the front wall had been removed the interior would have revealed, like a slightly sinister dolls’ house, a stratified model of late Victorian society. In the basement and the attics were the servants, while in between were Julia and Leslie Stephen and the extended family of half, step and full siblings.

The house represented the tottering anthill of hierarchy and oppression that Bloomsbury would kick over. With Leslie Stephen’s death the ‘Greek slave years’ of his daughters ended and the household was joyously broken up. The dark and overcrowded drawing-rooms of Kensington, the antimacassars, the whatnots and the heavy curtains, gave way to white walls, Post-Impressionism and colourful Omega rugs. Manners also relaxed. Young men used each others’ first names and in Gordon Square for the whole of Christmas 1905 Virginia ‘never once changed for dinner which is my height of bliss’. But of course she hadn’t cooked the dinner. Sophie Farrell and Maud Chart, the cook and housemaid from Hyde Park Gate, had come with the Stephen children to take care of them. Sophie lived in the basement, Maud in the attic. The new morality was pretty much confined to the four floors in between.

The sisters were well aware of the inconsistencies, but at a loss to know what to do. ‘The more I think of it,’ the newly married Vanessa Bell wrote, ‘the more it seems to me absurd that we should have … 5 servants to look after a young & able-bodied couple & a baby.’ ‘Why we have them I can’t think,’ Virginia lamented. ‘How terrible it is to be in this position.’ At the same time her efforts to manage for herself only opened up the chasm between the classes. ‘I bought my fish & meat in the High Street,’ she noted, when living with Leonard at Richmond, ‘a degrading but rather amusing business. I dislike the sight of women shopping. They take it so seriously.’ Her mother had ruled Hyde Park Gate with absolute confidence in the ‘old laws of life … a house, servants, establishments’. Without them her daughters were liberated, but also adrift. Food had still to be bought and cooked, carpets cleaned and bed linen changed and there was no real question of doing it themselves. Released from Victorian certainty, mistress and servant were drawn into a different, more uneasily intimate relationship, which Virginia in particular found difficult. Over the years, as the Bloomsbury households dissolved and reformed with Thoby Stephen’s death, Vanessa’s marriage and then Virginia’s, the servant problem assumed different forms, but it never went away.

Vanessa Bell managed to create a workable balance, briefing her cook every morning and keeping a professional and psychological distance from the staff. Her sister was temperamentally incapable of such detachment. The servants with their ‘talk-talk-talk’, their coming and going and ‘wonder expressed-loud laughter-agreement’ jangled her nerves and got into her writing like the smell of boiled cabbage into the curtains. If she failed to write about them convincingly it was not so much that she could not enter into their minds as that she was afraid of them getting into hers. In Mrs Dalloway Woolf says what Light says of her and more.

Clarissa Dalloway at her best is a modern Julia Stephen, poised at the head of a household, knowing as she pauses on the landing ‘the very temper of her house!’ The sounds that maddened Woolf in real life – ‘the swish of a mop; tapping; knocking; a loudness when the front door opened; a voice repeating a message in the basement; the chink of silver on a tray’ – bring back to Mrs Dalloway the echoes of her competence, her centrality and self-confidence. Lucy, her parlourmaid, thinks her mistress, who is ‘mistress of silver, of linen, of china’, the loveliest among the guests at the party. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ Mrs Dalloway returns, ‘in gratitude to her servants generally for helping her to be like this, to be what she wanted, gentle, generous-hearted. Her servants liked her.’ To bathe the thin-skinned soul in the warm glow of liking, this was what the perfect servant could do. But Lucy has her dark counterpart in the terrible Miss Kilman, Elizabeth Dalloway’s governess. ‘Bitter and burning’, she is the ugly, angry poor who are always with us, ‘with the power and taciturnity of some prehistoric monster’. But though ancient she is also yet to come. ‘She had always earned her living. Her knowledge of modern history was thorough in the extreme.’ Her independence and her education are a reproach to Mrs Dalloway, who has neither of these things, and to Virginia Woolf, who wants them in principle for all women but finds the Miss Kilmans of the world ‘ugly, commonplace’ and knows that the governess would like to make Clarissa Dalloway weep, ‘ruin her; humiliate her; bring her to her knees’. For good or ill, Mrs Dalloway is at the mercy of her staff.

Within this precarious ambivalence towards service as love and as humiliation, Virginia Woolf lived out her adult life. Light writes with perception and great delicacy of her shifting moods and needs and of the way they reflected her emotional and working life. The early loss of her mother, the necessity, often, for nurses when she was mentally or physically ill, all complicated her understanding of the exchange of needs with her staff. This difficult but unchanging theme, the nature of interdependence between human beings, is what most interests Light and it is what Woolf writes about. If she does not make the servants real in her books, she realises the psychological truth of her relationship with them and it seems redundant to argue that her scope is somehow limited. Where Light is more persuasive is in her effort to even up accounts by filling in the hitherto missing side of the story; giving the history of the servants themselves and assembling what she can from the relics of these hidden lives.

Her researches take us through the green baize door where an oddly symmetrical looking-glass world is opened up, with a similar generation gap. The older servants knew their place and played their parts as consciously as their masters. Sophie Farrell, who went to Hyde Park Gate when she was 25 and worked for various members of the family until 1926, never lost touch with her adored ‘Miss Genia’. She treasured news of ‘Miss Nessa and her charming children’ and the memory of their ‘beloved mother’. After Sophie retired, Virginia sent her an annual pension of £10 and Sophie responded with letters of thanks for such kindness. ‘I feel so unworthy of it all,’ she writes over and over again, tactfully concealing the fact that she was actually quite well off. At her death she was able to leave substantial savings to a niece. It was the connection, rather than the cash, that she treasured. Sophie belonged to one of the last generations of country girls who came to town to go into service. By the turn of the 20th century, as the servant crisis began to bite, servants were changing as much as their employers. They were better educated, and with other occupations to choose from they were much less docile.

Nellie Boxall was another country girl, but a very different character. Eight years younger than her employer, she could not so easily assume the mothering role that Sophie sometimes fulfilled, and the two women were closer in temperament as well as age. Nellie, too, had lost her mother early, she too was childless, emotionally needy, volatile and demanding. For 18 years she and Virginia Woolf lived together, interdependent in a way they both resented, continually disappointed in one another. Nellie had begun her Bloomsbury career as cook for Roger Fry from about 1912. His house, ‘Durbins’, in Surrey was to his own design, a variation on the Arts and Crafts answer to the Kensington terrace, with a garden by Gertrude Jekyll and a bird bath by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Its ground plan had social as much as architectural implications. The accommodation was arranged over three floors with interconnecting spaces round the characteristic double-height living hall or ‘houseplace’ which brought everyone together. There was a single shared entrance for servants and family, no back stairs, and a frosted glass door replaced the green baize, suggesting at least a semi-permeable membrane between the classes. More interestingly, from Nellie’s point of view, there were radiators rather than open fires, water closets, a dumb waiter and easy-wipe parquet floors. She and the housemaid Lottie Hope found it very convenient. Their transfer to the Woolfs’ establishment four years later was therefore something of a let-down from the start.

Leonard and Virginia had none of the Frys’ enthusiasm for modern conveniences and without them the artistic spontaneity of Bloomsbury life could be hard on the staff. It was no wonder Nellie was ‘rather waspish’ when ‘Mary, Gwen, Julia, Quentin, Geoffrey Keynes and Roger’ all called in for tea on the spur of the moment during her few quiet hours in the afternoon. The Woolfs kept a printing press in the larder, which must have been inconvenient, and Mitzi, their incontinent pet marmoset, also added to the housework. In other ways, modern morals made things easier. Their staff were not expected to wear uniform, to call ‘Mrs Woolf’ ‘Ma’am’ or to wait at table, and they enjoyed an easier and more informal life than most servants. Nellie had a radio in her room and was allowed to borrow the wind-up gramophone. But the life of a live-in domestic was uncomfortable in many ways. She could be ‘lent’ to Vanessa Bell when needed, or transported for six weeks to the horribly spartan country home at Asheham, which the Woolfs rented until 1919, and where there were only oil lamps and the water had to be pumped from a well. When in 1924 economies were made and Lottie Hope was dismissed, Nellie found herself in charge of almost all the household duties, from emptying the chamberpots to making the dinner. Not only was she tired out, she was also, especially in the country, very lonely, sitting by herself in the kitchen night after night. Never once does Virginia Woolf seem to have considered any of this as an explanation for Nellie’s moods and strategic toothaches. Why, she wondered in all seriousness, if Nellie could have her friends to visit should she complain when Virginia had hers? It was egotism dressed as egalitarianism and it was at the heart of her inability either to get on with Nellie or to get away from her.

Nellie had ways of getting her own back. Although with the Woolfs she was often moody and ‘nervy’, she was ‘extraordinarily nice’ when sent to the Bells and entertained Vanessa with ‘most interesting accounts of the Woolf menage’, after which Leonard had her promptly recalled. Gossip, low-level espionage and emotional blackmail were her principal weapons. Unfortunately, these were areas where Virginia Woolf was also an expert. As in a failing marriage the two of them repeated the same scenes endlessly, knowing just where the other’s weak spots were. Whatever the supposed cause of the grievance – Nellie’s refusal to try an electric stove, Leonard’s excessively hefty coal scuttle – the real battle was for affection and emotional equality in an unequal relationship. These episodes, ‘painful, ridiculous, agitating moments which make one half sick’, left Virginia exhausted and repelled by Nellie’s ‘shifting greedy eyes’. She tore her to shreds in her diary, getting revenge for her own sense of violation by allowing her cook no inner life beyond her employer’s reach. She found her to be ‘in a state of nature; untrained; uneducated, to me almost incredibly without the power of analysis or logic’; but the forlorn ‘She doesn’t care for me’ was the most revealing complaint.

Nellie obviously did care. The Woolfs were in many ways the closest thing she had to an immediate family and much as they all disliked the fact, her home was their home. She made successive doomed attempts to assert herself. On one occasion she threw Virginia out of her room, demanding to be left in privacy, an irony that seems to have been lost on the author of the recently published A Room of One’s Own. She also shocked her employer by saying of the Labour election victory in 1929: ‘We are winning.’ Suddenly she was Miss Kilman. ‘I don’t want to be ruled by Nelly,’ Virginia wrote in her diary. ‘That … would be a disaster.’ But ruled by her she often was. Then, after the rows came the makings up and another kind of complicity when Nellie turned back into Lucy the parlourmaid. Virginia would scribble ‘love to Nelly’ on the bottom of a letter home. Nellie would pick seven pounds of blackberries to make jam, or cycle miles unbidden to get cream for supper. Once she knitted Virginia a pair of red socks, which were a great success. She too was longing to be liked.

In all these exchanges the ultimate weapon on both sides was Nellie’s notice. Sometimes she gave it, sometimes the Woolfs did. Over and again, one side or the other backed down. In 1931, when Nellie was so ill that even the Woolfs could not put it down to nerves, they visited her in hospital and Virginia sat on the bed and ‘cuddled’ her cook. Yet all the while she and Leonard were planning to dismiss Nellie as soon as she was better. Otherwise they feared they would be stuck with her as a dependent for life. In the end, it took them another three years to pluck up the courage. Typically, it is Woolf herself, in her diary, who brings out the full pathos of Nellie’s situation, which she will not acknowledge but cannot help seeing. At the culmination of ‘the most disagreeable six weeks’ of Woolf’s life, as she contemplated the execution of her resolve to get rid of Nellie, she leaves her standing, ‘her funny rather foolish mulish face puckered up’, refusing to be paid off or to shake hands, ‘grasping a wet cloth at the sink and glaring’. Thwarted, grieved, and, at the age of 44, suddenly homeless, Nellie is a heart-breaking figure.

After that she disappears from the diaries and letters as entirely as if she had never been, an indication, perhaps, of how deeply Woolf had felt it all. But in reality she remained in Bloomsbury and felt as liberated as her employers. She went to work almost at once for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, one of the most glamorous show-business couples in London, whose flat in Gordon Square had been modernised by Wells Coates, architect of the new Lawn Road flats in Hampstead where Agatha Christie lived. Like Lawn Road, the Laughtons’ home was the last word in convenience, with central heating, a gas cooker and an open-plan living-room. Nellie took greatly to the combination of show business and streamlined Modernism and seems to have blossomed, going on to achieve some fame of her own by featuring in newspaper advertisements as ‘Mr & Mrs Charles Laughton’s cook’ promoting the ‘New World porcelain enamelled gas cooker with the “regulo” heat control’. It was a new world indeed, as the Laughtons’ maid, Happy Powley, recalled. Powley, who knew the other households in Gordon Square, remembered Mrs Woolf as ‘lovely … always sort of the grand lady’ and gave the most succinct summing-up of her relationship with her former cook; Nellie, she said, was ‘a bit highly strung’ and ‘Virginia Woolf was’ too.

Despite Light’s efforts, Nellie struggles to emerge as a rounded personality rather than merely the negative imprint she left on Woolf’s diary. But in retirement, when she settled with her brother Arthur and Lottie Hope at Farncombe in Surrey, we get a glimpse of her on her own terms as a forceful woman of some determination. She was one of the first in the street to buy her house, having had a generous pay-off from the Laughtons, and she went on rapidly to install a bathroom, kitchen extension, indoor WC and television. Once she had her own household, ‘Miss Boxall’, as she was always known to the neighbours, ran it with firmness and efficiency. She seemed a cut above the rest of North Street, ‘a lady’ who ‘bossed everyone’ and finally got the respect and independence she had always craved. She died in 1965. Her last memories of her employer were suitably ambivalent. While she told the BBC in 1956 what they wanted to hear, that Virginia Woolf was ‘always very nice’ and when Nellie was in hospital had brought her a pineapple, she confirmed her former employer’s worst suspicions of the low ‘servant mind’ by telling her own family, almost certainly untruthfully, that she left because she couldn’t stop Leonard from trying to get her into bed.

After the parting of the ways, the Woolfs increasingly managed their own household. They installed electricity. Even at Rodmell, where the Woolfs lived in Sussex, there was a fridge. Virginia cooked occasionally and enjoyed turning the sausages with a pen holder. By 1940, they had dispensed with live-in help, ‘all so heavenly free & easy,’ she wrote, ‘– L & I alone’. But the freedom was short-lived. While Nellie was beginning to rise above her circumstances towards eventual independence, her former employer was descending into madness and housework. With the winter her state of mind deteriorated and as her final illness began she found comfort in cleaning, telling her doctor that she had ‘taken to scrubbing floors when she couldn’t write’. Leonard hoped the mechanical tasks might be therapeutic and encouraged her to help Louie Everest, their daily, who was somewhat surprised: ‘I had never known her want to do any housework with me before.’ Woolf, who had once found it humiliating to do her own shopping, spent the last morning of her life dusting with Louie, before she put the duster down and went to drown herself.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.