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
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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.

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