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.)
“Superbly researched, often passionately eloquent, and enthralling throughout…Light's signal achievement in her compelling book lies in divvying up her pages equally between the lives of the servants and that of their mistress. Mrs. Woolf and the Servants is no dryly academic sociological study. It is an inquiry into the fundamental nature of human intimacy.” —Washington Post Book World
“Ms. Lights aim is ‘to give the servants back their dignity and the respect they deserve. She succeeds wonderfully. Ms. Light is able to broach matters of class and mutual dependency, of Woolfs artistic vision and inherited blinders, with a graceful judiciousness.” —Wall Street Journal
“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
“[Lights] analyses of both the Bloomsbury notables and the servant class of their time are deft and engrossing.” —Publishers Weekly
“The complex, interwoven stories of Woolf and Sophie, Nellie, Lottie, Louie, and many other distinct personalities remain at the heart of this meticulously researched and elegant exploration.” —Booklist
“Ms Light has done an excellent job of weaving together social history and literary criticism. Her book not only gives voice to previously silent subjects but also adds to our understanding of both Woolf and Bell, of whom it is sometimes easy to feel one has heard quite enough already.” —Economist
“Lights research is thorough and she does a good job of joining social history to Woolfs particular story.” —Christian Science Monitor
“This is a book with a most revelatory subject … it is original, and that is a lot.”—Boston Globe
“Light deftly ‘restores the servants to the story.” —New Yorker
“Historian Alison Light's fascinating "Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury" does something that by all rights should be impossible: The book finds a fresh angle on a life so well-documented it should by all rights be threadbare. Light writes with sympathy and insight, blowing away the cobwebs of a way of life now gone.” —Seattle Times
"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 brings all her scholarly skills and imagination to bear on the task of illuminating the lives of people whom history has often ignored. Reading Woolfs 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 Woolfs 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. ... 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 Woolfs liberalism in her fiction with her class-consciousness in her kitchen... [A] groundbreaking work of scholarship. An essential addition to the alpine pile of books about Woolf." —Kirkus “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. 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. An absorbing collective history of servants in Britain…”—The Nation “An authoritative, detailed account of the dynamic relationship between Virginia Woolf and the domestic help that was so crucial to her existence as a woman and a writer. Alison Light is clear-eyed and wise about her chosen topic. She has not only done her research, but brings to her task some unique advantages: Her grandmother was in domestic service. And indeed a particular feature of "Mrs. Woolf and the Servants" is its emphasis on the humanity of these women. Although well-versed in and informed by the sociological background, Ms. Light is careful to present rounded portraits of these people who played such an important role in the Woolf household.”—Washington Times
“This is a bold, impressive and important rewriting of a slice of British social history.”—Guardian
“An absorbing and complex portrait of Woolfs 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
andldquo;Above all a work of quiet poetry and insight into human behaviour. It is full of wisdom.andrdquo;
andldquo;I read Common People with a mixture of admiration, awe and sorrow. . . . It is a remarkable achievement and should become a classic, a worthy successor to E. P. Thompsonandrsquo;s Making of the English Working Class. It is full of humanity.andrdquo;
andldquo;By turnsandnbsp;mesmericandnbsp;andandnbsp;deeply moving: aandnbsp;poeticandnbsp;excavation of the very meaning of history.andrdquo;
“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.
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.
About the Author
Alison Light is the author of the acclaimed Mrs. Woolf and the Servants. She is Honorary Professor in the Department of English at University College, London, and a contributor to the London Review of Books and writes regularly for the British press. Common People was shortlisted for the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize in Non-fiction and was a Book of the Year in the Times, Telegraph, Financial Times, Spectator, History Today, and the Scottish Herald.
Review A Day
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