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Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury Hardcover – September 2, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
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From The New Yorker

This engrossing portrait of Virginia Woolf and the women who looked after her explores how modern ideas of class and gender crucial to Woolf's writing ran up against her lingering ties to a waning Victorian domestic order. Woolf frequently pondered the "servant question," but her concern for those she employed was tinged with distaste. "I am sick of the timid spiteful servant mind," she wrote of Nellie Boxall, her cook for eighteen years. Though Woolf professed a desire for a time when masters and servants might be "fellow beings," and argued in her work for space and autonomy for women, her life was one of dependence; she did not learn to cook until she was forty-seven. Light deftly "restores the servants to the story," arguing that Woolf's relationships with them were "as enduring, intimate and intense as any in her life."
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press; First U.S. Edition edition (September 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596915609
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596915602
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.3 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,629,343 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Lindsey R. Nichols on September 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Alison Light clearly does her homework. "Mrs. Woolf and the Servants" is absolutely loaded with the products of her very thorough research. Not only does she tell us as much as humanly possible about the various servants who worked for Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and others of the Bloomsbury set, but she tells us about the lives of their parents, as well. Light strives to create a clear picture of these servants, including where they came from, how they lived, and how their lives drew to a close. In addition, she pays a good deal of attention to the conditions of life and stratification along class structure in England during the early 1900's. Initially, I was worried that the book would prove to be too dry, as some books which prove to be information dumps can be. Thankfully, Light paints vivid portraits of these famous (and not so famous) figures, bringing them to life while keeping the reader's interest.

My main criticism of the book consists of there being occasionally too much information. We don't necessarily need to know the smallest details of the lives of these servants' parents. In addition, Light does stray away from the main topic of domestic servants and simply focus on Virginia Woolf for a good portion. Since my main attraction to this book was my thirst for all things Virginia Woolf, I appreciated that. However, those looking simply for a critical analysis of domestic service might not be as pleased. Light certainly goes above and beyond in her approach to discovering exactly what Woolf's view of domestic service was. Not only does she turn to diaries, correspondence, and interviews for her information, but she goes so far as to do her own interpretation of servants in Woolf's literary work in a manner that is well thought out and truly revealing of the famous writer.

Whether you're interested in England's history of household servants or solely here for the Virginia Woolf insight, I definitely recommend this book.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By N.S. on July 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I loved this book; it read like a novel on a topic that is fascinating and eye opening. My mother and her 5 sisters all came to the US from Ireland in the 1920s and worked as servants for the rich on Beacon Hill, in Boston. Their memories always seemed a bit "off" to me and they never really got into details of their experiences (except for one who worked for a very prominent politician), even when probed. They "laughed" about it a little too much, similar to how the servants, many years later, recalled their days in service, and now I understand that was because otherwise they might cry. It also helps to explain why my mother bent over backwards for the people who worked for her. Even though they were there to clean and iron my mother would work along side of them and my father, a doctor, would say "don't stick your nose in the air-these people are the salt of the earth and your bread and butter". There is no doubt in my mind that my mother and aunts had many of the same situations as the servants in this extremely well written book. (If only The Help by Kathryn Stockett had been as informative and well crafted.) I wish my mother was around now because I think I would ask better questions of her. You don't have to be a Virginia Woofe fan, and I am even less now than ever, to enjoy this book.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Janice Ruth Smith on September 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For compulsive readers of Virginia Woolf. If you have been intrigued for years over the many references to Virginia`s "servant problem" in her diaries and letters, this is the book to read.

It throws new light on middle-class families in Victorian times, and right through WWI. Questions are answered, secrets are revealed, and there is a surprise at the end.

I liked it very much.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Gabriella West on May 3, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I bought this book as a Kindle Daily Deal and to my surprise it was long, beautifully researched, and taught me a few things about Virginia Woolf and her circle that I didn't know... and I thought I knew quite a bit.

Alison Light frames her book chronologically, starting with the Stephen family's oldest servant, Sophie Farrell, who was a country girl in her early 20s hired as the cook when Virginia Stephen was a baby. Sophie became the warm heart of 22 Hyde Park Gate, a home which saw its fair share of trauma, grief and emotional repression, especially after Virginia's mother, Julia, died in 1895. Woolf always kept up an affectionate correspondence with Sophie, even though she was eventually dropped by Bloomsbury when she got too old and drifted over to the Duckworth side of the family, who were (ironically) more loyal and decent to their dependents.

Light pinpoints the disturbing truth that Vanessa and Virginia, "modern" and progressive as they were, treated their servants shoddily in the sense of "taking care" of them. On the other side of it, their servants rewarded them with loyalty and seemed to care about their employers' welfare. There is an eye-opening photo of Lottie, Nellie and Grace with Angelica Bell in the 1920s--servants who worked for both Virginia and Vanessa (and were sometimes exchanged between them). Their faces are warm and frank; they're youthful and smiling. Meanwhile Vanessa and Virginia are exchanging spiteful and whining letters about how exhausting it is to have the servants around, how demanding they are, what a burden, etc, etc. These were the women who literally had to empty their slop pails.
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