- The Empire and Its Other Servants
For many years, I felt locked out of the intimate spaces in Virginia Woolf's fiction. I read A Room of One's Own as an undergraduate, but my experience of the book was overshadowed by a workshop I attended soon after that reading, in which Toni Morrison elegantly, eloquently, and angrily criticized the unconscious privilege she read in Woolf's need of an isolated and private room for writing. Black women writers, I remember Morrison saying, had never, historically, enjoyed that kind of spatial privilege. They would have worked in these rooms, yes, but only to clean them. That statement repelled me from Virginia Woolf for decades.
Yet Alison Light's searching and beautifully written Mrs Woolf and the Servants has brought me back to the writer. Light's book insistently keeps Virginia Woolf in full view of her female servants, rewriting the author's biography to keep her life in close connection to those who worked for her parents, her sister, her husband, and for her. As Light describes these connections, she also writes the story of British service. This encompasses even more than labor history: "it's hard to resist the conclusion that the history of service is the history of British women" (xv). What has kept the histories of these women in service out of the light is a blinding combination of British class prejudice, misogynistic revulsion from working women's physicality, Victorian prurience, and, finally, documentation. What records did the servants ever leave?
The real source of privilege, as Virginia Woolf certainly knew, was having the proper documents and therefore being fully present in all aspects of British political society. In the larger domain of the British empire, the correct legal identification papers, diplomas, and licenses embodied the difference between social inferiority and true political and economic autonomy. Even upper-class women struggled against their own legal and economic dependence; Light shows the frustration with which Virginia Woolf mourned her own lack of education (266). For women in service, many of them from the rural poor or urban orphans sent from workhouses, such documentation seems unimaginable. Their work was done without contract and with very little education. The limits of Virginia Woolf's otherwise powerful imagination left her maids-of-all-work, cooks, and cleaners as silent as the mute subalterns lamented by theorist Gayatri Spivak and other scholars of colonialism. Even their labor barely registered as work for the upper classes considering their "servant question." As Light writes, "servants were an [End Page 144] expense and an intrusion, they might weigh a little on the conscience, but it was not a matter of their 'exploitation'. Few saw domestic work as 'labour'; masters and mistresses thought of giving their live-in maids their 'keep' rather than their 'pay'" (61).
The challenge for a book that, like Mrs Woolf and the Servants, clearly intends to set these women's records straight is to make sure the lived lives of the servants were as interesting as lives more diligently documented and publicly lived, like the Woolfs. Are they worth studying for their pathos, as seems to be the case with Sophie Farrell, one of the first of Virginia and her siblings' many housemaids and nannies? Sophie came from a poor rural family long used to sending children into service; she worked for Virginia's parents, the Stephens, for years. After their deaths, she worked for the children in their own house and then stayed with Virginia well into the latter's adulthood. For many years she slept in the basements of these different households, in dank, filthy, and dark spaces (32). Are the servants worthy of scrutiny for their struggle for a voice within such unequal households or for their challenges to their employer's authority, as was the case with Nellie Boxall, who worked for Virginia and her husband, Leonard, for eighteen years before being unceremoniously let go?
With her often-illuminated writing and wonderful use of photographs, Alison Light explains the many riches found in documenting and textualizing the lives of these servant women. First, by exploring the period from the 1870s through the...