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Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsburyby Alison Light
Virginia Woolf may have had a room of her own, but someone else cleaned it. Desperate to erase their Victorian past, the members of the Bloomsbury group were eager to set informal standards with their staff to varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, their homes were divided between "us" and "them." (Someone, after all, had to coddle them while they created.) Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the Servants offers a unique look into the below-stairs world of Bloomsbury and the not-always-silent role played by the domestic servant.
In Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, a mix of social history, biography and literary criticism, Alison Light takes a sustained look at these servants and their relationships with their artistic, semibohemian, upper-middle-class employers. Though Light spends equal time upstairs and downstairs, the dominant figure of the book is Woolf....Light digs deeper into Woolf's experience with servants and pieces together the servants' stories — a method that allows her to examine, from fresh angles, the institution of domestic servitude, which intimately bound together women of different classes who thought they had little in common and often found each other baffling. Elaine Blair, The Nation (read the entire Nation review)
Synopses & Reviews
A revealing and personal new perspective on the Bloomsbury set and the servants who shared their lives.
When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of Ones Own in 1929, she established her reputation as a feminist, a woman who could imagine a more open and liberal reality, and an advocate for the female voice. Indeed the Bloomsbury set has often been identified with liberal, open-minded views; Woolfs circle of artists and writers were considered Bohemians ahead of their time. But they were also of their time. Like thousands of other British households, Virginia Woolfs relied on live-in domestics for the most intimate of daily tasks. That room of her own she so valued was cleaned, heated, and supplied with meals by a series of cooks and maids throughout her childhood and adult life. In Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light gives depth and dignity to the long-overlooked servants who worked for the Bloomsbury intellectuals.
The result is twofold. For one, Light adds revealing nuances to our picture of Virginia Woolf, both as a woman and as writer. She also captures a fascinating period of British history, primarily between the wars, when modern oil stoves were creeping into kitchens to replace coal, and young women were starting to dream of working in hat shops rather than mansions.
Despite the liberal outlook of the Bloomsbury set, and their conscious efforts to leave their Victorian past behind, their homes were nevertheless divided into the worlds of "us" and "them." Alison Light writes with insight and charm about this fraught side of Bloomsbury, and hers is a refreshingly balanced portrait of Virginia Woolf, flaws and all.
"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.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
andldquo;Family history begins with missing persons,andrdquo; Alison Light writes in Common People. We wonder about those weandrsquo;ve lost, and those we never knew, about the long skein that led to us, and to here, and to now. So we start exploring.
Most of us, however, give up a few generations back. We run into a gap, get embarrassed by a neandrsquo;er-do-well, or simply find our ancestors are less glamorous than weandrsquo;d hoped. That didnandrsquo;t stop Alison Light: in the last weeks of her fatherandrsquo;s life, she embarked on an attempt to trace the history of her family as far back as she could reasonably go. The result is a clear-eyed, fascinating, frequently moving account of the lives of everyday people, of the tough decisions and hard work, the good luck and bad breaks, that chart the course of a life. Lightandrsquo;s forebearsandmdash;servants, sailors, farm workersandmdash;were among the poorest, traveling the country looking for work; they left few lasting marks on the world. But through her painstaking work in archives, and her ability to make the people and struggles of the past come alive, Light reminds us that andldquo;every life, even glimpsed through the chinks of the census, has its surprises and secrets.andrdquo;
What she did for the servants of Bloomsbury in her celebrated Mrs. Woolf and the Servants Light does here for her own ancestors, and, by extension, everyoneandrsquo;s: draws their experiences from the shadows of the past and helps us understand their lives, estranged from us by time yet inextricably interwoven with our own. Family history, in her hands, becomes a new kind of public history.
“Superbly researched, often passionately eloquent, and enthralling throughout.”—Washington Post Book World
When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of Ones Own in 1929, she established her reputation as a feminist, and an advocate for unheard voices. But like thousands of other upper-class British women, Woolf relied on live-in domestic servants for the most intimate of daily tasks. That room of Woolfs own was kept clean by a series of cooks and maids throughout her life. In the much-praised Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light probes the unspoken inequality of Bloomsbury homes with insight and grace, and provides an entirely new perspective on an essential modern artist.
About the Author
Alison Light is the author of Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars and edited Virginia Woolfs Flush for Penguin Classics. She is currently a professor at the Raphael Samuel History Centre at the University of East London, and teaches English at Newcastle University. She is a contributor to the London Review of Books. Her grandmother worked as a domestic servant.
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