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  • Hewers of Words and Drawers of Water
  • Kathryn J. Oberdeck (bio)

Though consciousness might try to soar, it stayed tethered to language, that obstinately social medium. What if the self, another imaginary interior, were also, like domestic life, a social, not a private creation? Such privacy as one found there would always be provisional and temporary, always in relation to others—their presence or absence a comfort or threat.

—Alison Light, Mrs Woolf and the Servants

This passage, and the compassionate consideration for multiple, complexly interwoven interiors and exteriors (of bodies, selves, houses, classes, races, and, sometimes, nations) that it evokes, expresses most poignantly to me what Alison Light has achieved in Mrs Woolf and the Servants. Light painstakingly reconstructs the trajectories of women whose intimate services in Virginia Woolf's homes also shaped a literary and personal architecture of self. In the process, she effectively demonstrates what historical prospects are opened by the rapprochements between social and cultural on the other side of the belligerent "turns" of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as some wisely recognized limits to those prospects. Of what might lie beyond such limits, I will have more to say at the end of this piece; first, I want to attend to the methodological possibilities that Light's book realizes.

The very effort to restore servants' lives and conditions to the story of Woolf's pursuit of self, evidenced in Light's broadly contextualized portraits of their paths of arrival in Woolf's households, their conditions of work and life there, and their experiences after leaving, demonstrates what the methodologies of social history can offer to cultural history. Of course, in all the records and repositories that yield the births, deaths, family relations (or lack of them), the changing addresses, and sustaining communities of those who cooked, cleaned, and cared for Woolf and her family, there are a myriad of mystifying constructions that most culturally minded historical practitioners would regard with suspicion. But, however elusive and conditional these facts, without a willingness to seek them the history of sea changes in culture of the kind to which Woolf herself tried to give textual voice are left in the descriptive shallows ("shunted . . . off into social history," as Light puts it in her preface).

True to social histories of workers that have (for the most part) overcome whatever doctrines of documentary fact the cultural turn justly [End Page 140] scorned, Light's book is varied in its methodologies while at the same time mindful of the conditions that shape the documents she wields. Oral history accompanies archival documents to enhance the voices of Sophie Farrell, Lottie Hope, and Nellie Boxall, the main dramatis personae in her exploration of the experience of domestic service in Woolf's households. At the same time, Light attends to the performative contexts of these documents and stories—their construction through the "obstinately social medium" of language (116)—in assessing what they reveal, and strategically conceal, about the servants' lives. A former cook's obsequious gratitude for monetary gifts, she acknowledges, provides "dodgy evidence" of actual feelings but suggestive hints about colliding components of appreciation, self-sacrifice, pride, disappointment, and maneuver in the "family treasure's" relation to her erstwhile employers. However nuanced through decades of debate with cultural history, though, the strands of the "social" that Light pulls together—class difference, power, and the impacts of migration across rural and urban borders—illuminate dimensions to the lives of Farrell, Hope, and Boxall that give them crucial substance outside the limits of Woolf's perceptions of and reactions to them.

That said, the imaginative figures that servants become in Woolf's art are also indispensable to Light's comprehension of "service." For it is by connecting the social fabric that binds employers to servants with Woolf's imaginative working of this fabric that Light is able to illuminate the confounded intricacies of interiors and exteriors that link transformations in "service" to transformations in "self." It seems to me that more is achieved in this effort to put literary representations of servants alongside the flesh and blood ones revealed by social history than the revelation of how the figures of servants haunt and limit...


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pp. 140-143
Launched on MUSE
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