Mrs Woolf and the Servants, by Alison Light

The Bloomsbury Group believed in freedom from convention, but still got the servants to do the dirty work
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The Independent Culture

I wouldn't have thought there was anything new to be written about Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. The amount of primary and secondary material is prodigious. Bloomsbury photograph albums are reproduced; "Charleston" style is analysed in sumptuous coffee-table books; Nicole Kidman dons a fake nose and droopy frock to play Virginia in a reverential adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Woolf-haunted novel The Hours; even dour second-fiddler Leonard Woolf recently became the subject of an extensive biography. Surely no stone remains unturned? Remarkably, Alison Light has found a new angle. Mrs Woolf and the Servants goes below stairs with a flashlight and a pail to illuminate the aspects of Bloomsbury living its denizens preferred to ignore.

It's not that there is an abundance of new material here, simply that looking at the antics of the Bloomsberries through the prism of the servant question is revealing. I shall never read about that warm, life-loving free spirit Vanessa Bell again without recalling with a chill her fury when her long-suffering cook, Grace Higgens, had the temerity to ask for a rise after years of service (in 1970 she was still looking after Duncan Grant for £5 per week plus board); or forget Light's cool observation that people of Virginia's class saw nothing even slightly out of kilter in paying a full-time cook £40 per annum when the household brought in £4,000.

Not that Light approaches her task in the spirit of class-clobbering. Instead, she teases out the implications of what was clearly a complicated relationship of mutual dependence. No one reading Woolf's diaries could fail to be struck by her fraught relationships with her servants, chiefly the manipulative Nellie Boxall and the hysterical Lottie Hope. Woolf was extremely fond of them; she despised them; she needed them desperately, and as Light demonstrates, this was absolutely reciprocal.

What is compelling about Woolf is her honesty. It has also been her downfall in terms of literary reputation. Her supposed unpleasantness is regularly used as an excuse not to read her work, rather than its difficulty. You don't hear intelligent people claiming not to have read Ulysses because they've heard James Joyce wasn't very nice.

Snobbery, class-consciousness and arrogance are all in evidence in Woolf's diary but so are moments of piercing insight, humility and thoughtfulness. She can make a devastating comment, then pull back from it in the next sentence; enshrine contemporary wisdom one moment, and critique it the next. "The poor have no chance; no manners or self-control to protect themselves with; we have a monopoly of all the generous feelings," she wrote in 1917, characteristically backtracking almost immediately: "I daresay this isn't quite true; but there's some meaning [in] it. Poverty degrades." Alison Light is mindful of how invaluable a source she is for the social historian.

Crucially for Light, Woolf was also living and writing vividly through the critical period when the centuries-long tradition of master and servant transformed in the course of a generation. There are still folk memories of domestic service; Light's own grandmother was in service, and Lottie, fondly remembered to this day, died as late as 1973. Skivvying for your social betters can never have been an attractive proposition, but after the First World War it became less of an inevitable one. As Light demonstrates, Virginia grew up in the archetypal well-off Victorian household with a sizable staff, and ended up making do in wartime and congratulating herself on the hitherto unthinkable – cooking her own dinner and noting: "Could it be the end of resident servants for ever?" She even spent her last afternoon alive dusting alongside the current Monk's House incumbent, Louie.

An important transitional figure is Sophia – "Sophie" – Farrell, who cooked for the Stephen family when Virginia's mother was still alive, and who was passed around the family for years as required. (Light is scrupulous about giving the servants the dignity of surnames, mindful of the interview given by the son of Percy Bartholomew, Leonard's gardener at Monk's House, still furious in the 1990s that his hard-working father was referred to solely as "Percy" in Leonard's autobiography.)

When the young Bloomsburyites grew up, there was an uncomfortable understanding that Sophie's high -Victorian ways were proving inappropriate, old-fashioned – and expensive. She eventually retired, and was given £10 per annum by Virginia, money that she never spent. To the end of her life, Mrs Woolf was "Miss Genia" to Sophie.

Light is good on the cramped dimensions of Bloomsbury houses, painting a vivid portrait of Monk's House with Leonard and Virginia going about their married life with a servant only ever one thin wall away. She notes that tours of Charleston do not include what is euphemistically known as Grace's "flat"; it was a large bedsitting room at the top of the house in which her son was born in 1935, but she and her family had no bathroom, and they had to take their baths once a week on Friday, between 8pm and 10pm, while the family was having dinner.

Not that the families themselves had what we would consider to be even rudimentary toilet facilities. (Another great social change of the period is the switch to flush toilets.) Light is fascinating on the topic of chamber pots, and the difficulty of procuring someone to empty them. A "slopper" was taken on at Asheham, Virginia's first marital home, the caretaker, a local shepherd's wife proving resistant to the task. "During more sociable times... the volume of such work makes one shudder," says Light. She describes the action of the revolutionary earth closet and notes that as late as the 1920s at the home of Clive Bell's family, the young Angelica Bell enjoyed covering "her excrement like a cat" with cinders and a shovel. "The well-to-do Bells presumably didn't see the point of flush toilets when there were servants to do the emptying," she adds, tartly.

There was a limit to Bohemianism, it seems, and it's comical to consider the young Bloomsberries' daring experiments in living against the backdrop of the ever-present servant class. "Now we are free women!" the young Virginia wrote gleefully. This book lays bare the complex web of social convention which made even one of the era's most unconventional thinkers resistant to the notion that her freedom was conditional upon another woman's servitude. In Vanessa Bell's 1939 painting, Interior with Housemaid, the face of the young woman sweeping the floor at Charleston is virtually blank. This book gives her back her features, and her name. *