A maid of one's own

August 17, 2007

Virginia Woolf's diaries reveal the ambivalence of her feelings towards servants, says Alison Light. Nonetheless, domestic staff as a class were more assertive and confident of their rights than is often recognised, Carolyn Steedman writes below.

When I first read Virginia Woolf's diaries, I was shocked but also fascinated by how viciously she wrote about her servants, and especially her cook, Nellie Boxall. Boxall, she wrote, was a "mongrel" with a "timid spiteful servant mind"; servants were as irritating as "kitchen-flies". And yet, in the next breath, she was also "poor dear" Nellie. The 18 years in which Boxall worked for Woolf, from 1916 to 1934, were punctuated by endless rows - a battle royal over the running of the household. There was guilt, anger and bewilderment on both sides, yet their lives were also inextricably intertwined.

Their story struck me as worth telling if only because Woolf's diaries are a rare record, however one-sided, of that affectionate, painful and defensive relationship between mistress and maid that has echoed down the ages and into our own day. My book Mrs Woolf and the Servants is a story of mutual - and unequal - dependence; it is also about social differences, about class feelings and attitudes generated and sustained by women in their homes rather than men in their workplaces - "class" as emotional as well as economic history.

Of course, Woolf's outbursts against the "loathsome spectacle" of the servant or "the cancer" of the poor tell us as much about her fantasies and fears, and those of her social milieu, as they do about her domestics' lives, but this need not make the diaries less interesting or important as historical evidence. Diaries, like so much else the historian encounters, need to be read between the lines.

To understand the rows between Woolf and Nellie, I needed to go back to the late Victorian household and the expectations about the servant relationship that they had both inherited. As an upper-middle-class girl, Woolf had grown up in a house in South Kensington with a staff of seven or so, all living in but carefully segregated in the basement and attics. Julia Stephen, her mother, believed utterly in service as a social and moral good; she wielded her authority gently, but firmly, in the little empire of home. Her closest ally was Sophie Farrell, the Stephen family cook, who remained a constant presence in Woolf's life. Sophie grew up in the 1860s, a country girl from a Lincolnshire village. Like thousands of other migrants, she had little choice but to leave home and go into service in the city. In effect orphaned, she was devoted to Julia and accompanied the Stephen siblings when they set up their new homes in Bloomsbury after their parents' deaths. She was Woolf's first housekeeper and a constant source of maternal care during her early breakdowns and illnesses, cutting up her food and encouraging her to eat. Yet, like so many family "treasures", Farrell eventually became an unwanted burden on the Stephens and, after shuttling between various family members, she was pensioned off in her seventies, ending her life in a bedsit in Brixton.

In Woolf's writings, the Victorian servant evokes an uneasy mix of guilt, anger and nostalgic longing for home. This was the prehistory to her servant keeping as a married woman.

Many of her female relations and friends were "slummers" and poor-visitors, venturing into Whitechapel or Wapping protected only by their faith in their moral mission. A crucial part of their philanthropic efforts lay in the reclaiming of girls and women from what was seen to be the corruption of poverty, turning many of them into tidy little servants. Among them was Lottie Hope, a foundling, who became Nellie Boxall's closest friend and co-worker (she owed her optimistic surname to a benefactor who brought her up in a private home and trained her to be a parlourmaid). Hope worked for Woolf and in the circle of her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, for most of her life, emptying chamber pots, changing beds and cleaning rooms. The Bloomsbury households were relatively free and easy; the servants never wore uniform, never went to church, never waited at table. Yet they were expected to be obedient and content. And without the ideological scaffolding, the assumption of moral superiority that had underpinned the Victorian service ethic, why should the mistress have the right to direct the lives of her "inferiors"?

The Woolfs' cramped cottage in Rodmell in Sussex and their Bloomsbury apartments provided little of the physical separation between the classes usual in the Victorian house on five floors. Living cheek by jowl highlighted inequalities and increased intimacy. Virginia so hated giving orders to Nellie that for a while she tried writing them down in a book. She loathed the "measured sweetness" used to servants, the elderly and - as she knew only too well - the sick. Her own experience of dependence was extreme; in the nursing home where she recovered from her mental collapse after her father's death she was kept in the dark and fattened up with glasses of milk. Whereas for her mother dependence was a necessary condition of social life, Woolf equated it with subservience. Increasingly, she saw the servant relationship, so frequently identified with the womanly role, as shoring up the tyrannies of private and public life, the product of a patriarchal hierarchy rife with exploitation. Service, Woolf wrote, was "a rubbish heap" waiting to be swept away. Yet without all the domestic care and hard work that servants provided there would have been no art, no writing, no "Bloomsbury".

Independence was the great goal of Woolf's generation of feminists - economic, psychological, emotional. Woolf's sympathies led her to champion the needs of women whose lives had long been obscured from history. In her best-known essay, A Room of One's Own, she asked: "Is the life of the charwoman who has brought up eight children of less value to the world than the barrister who has made £100,000?" Yet her polemical, political writing about women sits uneasily alongside her obnoxious comments on Nellie and the spasms of disgust that disfigure her responses to working women in the flesh.

Between the wars, the English were not incidentally class-conscious; it was how their society was structured, and one was as likely to meet snobbish attitudes in the station-master or the postman, the country solicitor or the businessman, as the smart London florist or the Cockney. The offensive passages in Woolf's writing can be matched by others equally vile in the work of many of her contemporaries. But she was highly unusual in probing her sore spots. Her diaries reveal how difficult it was to overcome her physical reactions to the working classes whose speech, behaviour and dress made them eem an alien tribe. Whatever her intellectual aspirations, prejudice expressed itself instinctively and viscerally.

In the interwar years, older servants such as Nellie Boxall and Lottie Hope found themselves stranded in a changing world. Live-in service was more and more disparaged, and appealed less and less to younger women. Increased literacy, the raising of the school-leaving age to 14 (which saw the end of the diminutive British "skivvy" or maid-of-all-work), the rise of Labour politics, enlarged the expectations of working women, who turned to new kinds of employment in hotels or shops or factories, which gave them time off and more autonomy.

Employers began to rely on "dailies" and charladies. There were anxious discussions, especially in the national press and on the BBC, about "missing maids" and the "class war in the home". Debates about domestic service and the decline of deference were signs of the slow democratising of British society. The 1930s saw the last generation of British girls go automatically into service; by the 1950s, those who wanted help would look further afield, to the Irish or those arriving from the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Without registering the absolute centrality of the service relationship, it is hard to make sense of what it has meant to be English at home and abroad. It is part of the Empire story as it is of any history of class. I wanted to restore the servants to the story of Bloomsbury - but not only for their own sakes. In her memoirs, Woolf wrote that human beings can be understood only if we acknowledge all those social relations and forces that determine our lives, including those internalised figures, of family and friends, and the ghosts of the dead, whom we carry with us. These are the "invisible presences" who help make us who we are.

Ultimately, the figure of the servant reminded Woolf that her enlightened vision of the independent, free individual, living the disembodied life of the mind, could only ever be a fantasy. The room of one's own is always shared. And someone has to clean it.

Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants has just been published by Fig Tree/Penguin at £20.00.

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