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  • Questioning Dependence
  • Rebecca Ginsburg (bio)
Alison Light , Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service. London: Penguin, 2007. xxiii + 376 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-670-86717-2 (cl).

Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants is an extended meditation on the threads that connect us to one another. Not only is it the case, Light argues, that people are formed through their relations with others—this is a common enough claim—but "there is no such thing as an individual, only the social relations by which we know ourselves and our limits" (xx–xxi). This statement resonates strongly with what Nguni speakers from Southern Africa call ubuntu, a word often interpreted to mean "a person becomes a person through other people." It is a powerful notion. What each of us flatters ourselves into believing is our unique, independent, and knowable personhood is an illusion. We are formed and can know ourselves only through the lens of our relations to others.

To Light, the implications of this insight for our understanding of domestic service are profound. Given that the primary contexts in which human bonds form are contexts of dependence, our reliance upon one another is the very basis of social formation. Instead of resenting the fact that we depend on one another, we should accept, perhaps even embrace it. In one of the most lovely sentences in a beautifully written book, Light explains, "[T]he capacity to entrust one's life to the care of others, including strangers, and for this to happen in safety, in comfort, without abuse, is crucial to any decent community and to any society worth the name" (xxii). This is an eloquent plea to honor those occasions when we must put our care in the hands of others and a strong argument for building social systems that allow us to do so with dignity.

The nature of the domestic worker-employer relationship is something I think about a lot in my own research and writing. I am an architectural and landscape historian, currently completing a manuscript on domestic service in apartheid-era South Africa (like Light, I concentrate on female servant–female employer relationships) and beginning new work on the geographies of escape among enslaved people in nineteenth-century United States. The strains and pressures of working and living with others in the context of domestic service have my attention because the rich emotional [End Page 131] terrain that connects workers and employers helps to delineate the geographies that each construct to manage their relationships. Light has challenged my thinking with respect to two important and recurring themes related to domestic service.

One of the Family

Light has made me think hard about the expression "like one of the family." In the context of domestic service, the words usually come from the mouth of an employer and refer to a household worker, as in "Lily is just like one of the family" or "Mabel is like a member of the family." The expression was and is rife in South Africa where, as elsewhere, it is used to connote comfort, trust, and affection between worker and family members. It is an expression typically scorned by workers, who interpret it as anything from a cynical attempt to avoid paying higher wages—after all, you would not sully your relations with family members by reducing them to monetary terms—to a pitiful plea for approval from housewives who, in particular, feel themselves judged and scrutinized by the ever-present eyes and ears of the servants. The dozens of South African servants I have interviewed, when the term came up, laughed at it, and the literature as well argues that we should understand the words as expressions of insincerity generated by, variously, greed, emotional need, and a weak grasp on reality. Light would have us take them more seriously.

Light suggests that what she rightly terms the "painful and defensive relationship between mistress and maid" (xiv) is, in fact, like a relationship between family members, in that the same interdependence that draws the latter together also binds the former. Indeed, it is precisely because the parties depend on one another that the relationship between servant...


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