This is a New York Times book review of Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury. The book looks at the relationships between Woolf and her hired maids and cooks throughout her youth and adulthood, telling the untold stories of the help in Woolf’s life. Apparently the bonds Woolf shared with her house staff were sometimes hostile, sometimes comforting, but always intimate and important in her life.
I know we’ve talked a bit about Woolf, as a woman of her time, being a snob and quite prejudiced. This review struck me because at first glance the book seems present a perfect example of Woolf’s upstairs-downstairs snobbery in relation to her house staff. And yet, as the review suggests, Woolf’s discomfort with her help is actually a really complex topic to explore. I find it interesting that Woolf “embraced the Labor Party and politics that promised social change, and yet did not seem to realize that [her] way of living perpetuated established class divisions” through the employment of maids and cooks. This shows that Woolf struggled with an ongoing battle between a resistance to her dependence on her house staff and a desire to embrace this dependence. This at times manifested in tensions between Woolf and her help. For a woman in her time, I think this struggle is particularly fascinating. On the one hand, and as the article shows, Woolf in a way has her hired help to thank for freeing her time so that she could complete her works, including her most feminist and forward-thinking. Perhaps a lack of hired help was just another of the many impediments to the advancement of female writers mentioned by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. On the other hand, perhaps employing help might have felt to Woolf like a sign of weakness, not only female, but human. No individual likes to admit his or her dependence, especially not a strong feminist woman who seeks to set a bold example in a society that is more or less unwelcoming toward boldness. How does a woman reconcile her independent artistic and career life with her dependent domestic life? This might illuminate, though not at all excuse, Woolf’s occasional hostile and elitist tendencies toward her help, who were actually essential in her daily life. When it comes to Woolf’s snobbery I think it’s important that we not only acknowledge and criticize it, but also come to understand it as a force within her that she constantly struggled against and tried to make sense of.