- Literary Biography from Below Stairs
Alison Light's book is a profoundly original study of a neglected aspect of a successful author's life and writings. There have been studies of servants in English literature—most notably Bruce Robbins's The Servant's Hand: English Fiction from Below—as well as historical studies of servants' lives in Great Britain, including Bridget Hill's Servants: English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century and Jessica Gerard's Country House Life: Family and Servants, 1815–1914. 1 A number of books have been published focusing on the life of a single domestic servant, often the rare woman who left us with a diary. Biographers have, however, rarely dared to (or perhaps cared to) put servants at the center of a study of their famous subjects' lives.
In the case of Mrs Woolf and the Servants, doing so has produced stunning results. The book forces us to take a more capacious view of the Bloomsbury Circle, including the servants (primarily female) who made it possible. As Light argues, "without all the domestic care and hard work which servants provided there would have been no art, no writing, no 'Bloomsbury'" (xvii). Despite attention to the subject in recent histories, domestic service remains "in the twilight zone of historical record" (1), particularly in biographies of authors, intellectuals, or politicians. Woolf's diaries meticulously record her interactions with servants, though past biographers have not used them as central material. By bringing the lives and work of Sophie Farrell, Nellie Boxall, Lottie Hope, and others to the center, Light offers a new window into the Woolfs, as well as their unsung domestics. She reminds us how psychologically enmeshed the lives of "master" and "servant" could be, and how profoundly domestic service changed over the course of Woolf's lifetime and beyond.
After an informative preface and prologue, the book introduces Sophia "Sophie" Farrell (1861–1941), a servant from Virginia Stephen's girlhood into her adult life. We learn not only of Sophie's place in Virginia's life, but also about the conditions of service as they changed from the Victorian era. Farrell passed from one Stephen family house to the next as cook; she outlived Woolf, for whom she served as a mother figure (73). Farrell is apparently the only servant for whom Woolf provided after leaving her employ, sending her £10 a year as a pension (69). Light titles the chapter "The Family Treasure," offering a provocative contrast to Farrell's meager economic clout. [End Page 135]
A chapter on housemaid and cook Lottie Hope (ca. 1890–1973) allows Light to consider child labor, rural schools, women's charitable work, and the thin line between adoption and abduction (97). Hope, a foundling, was adopted by Edith Sichel and raised in her Home for Deserted Children. Lottie "belonged to the first generation of working-class girls entitled to a free state education at elementary level," and would have learned "the three Cs"—cooking, cleaning, and care of clothing, as well as probably a fourth "C"—childcare (105–6). Like the subject of the next chapter, Nellie Boxall, Hope used these skills primarily on behalf of her employers, as she neither married nor had children. Ten years Virginia Woolf's junior, Lottie Hope "got away with murder and she was always taken back" (84). Perhaps this was because, despite her child-like ways and lifelong dependencies, Hope "was always remembered with affection" (297). Hope, too, moved among Stephen family households and Bloomsbury houses, ultimately living with Boxall, for whom she had long served as a sidekick. (Light concludes it was unlikely the women were lovers.)
The most gripping chapter is that on the Woolfs' cook (or cook general), Nellie Boxall (1890–1965), who was so often fired and rehired (or who would threaten to quit but then retract having given her notice) that it is impossible to summarize. Light describes Woolf's diary treatment of Boxall as vicious (xiii). The story of a fight during which Boxall told Woolf to get out of "her" room is among the book's most moving sections (192–93). Of course, the room was, strictly speaking, Woolf's, and not...