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Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
By: 
Alison Light
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0
Award Year: 
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A-Mrs Woolf and the ServantsAlison Light, a British academic, author of Forever England, and granddaughter of a domestic servant, aims to "restore the servants to the story" in this new perspective on Virginia Woolf and her times.

The Topic: In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf rhetorically asked, "Is the life of the charwoman who has brought up eight children of less value to the world than the barrister who has made a hundred thousand pounds?" She may have answered "no," but Woolf, whose 1929 work established her standing as a feminist, could theorize all she wanted about the servant class’s lives. Simply, her middle-class upbringing never allowed her to empathize with them. Alison Light argues that Woolf’s bohemian writer and artists friends, all espousing liberal ideals, held fast to the Victorian domestic ideal, despite the changing times; Woolf, like her colleagues, depended on live-in female domestics—whose stories Light uncovers—to run the household. "[W]ithout all the domestic care and hard work which servants provided," Light concludes, "there would have been no art, no writing, no ‘Bloomsbury.’"
Bloomsbury. 376 pages. $30. ISBN: 1596915609

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[Light] spotlights many instances in which Woolf drafted portraits of working women as part of her overall attempt to depict life more comprehensively than her literary forebears, but blue-penciled them out of the final versions because (Light persuasively speculates) she knew she could not truthfully enter the lives of people whose experiences were so different from hers. … Restoring people ignored by history to their full humanity, this generous-hearted work also makes the denizens of Bloomsbury more human—and reminds us that the problems they grappled with so fallibly are still with us." Wendy Smith

New Yorker 4 of 5 Stars
"This engrossing portrait of Virginia Woolf and the women who looked after her explores how modern ideas of class and gender crucial to Woolf’s writing ran up against her lingering ties to a waning Victorian domestic order. … Light deftly ‘restores the servants to the story,’ arguing that Woolf’s relationships with them were ‘as enduring, intimate and intense as any in her life.’"

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Mrs. Woolf] does something that by all rights should be impossible: The book finds a fresh angle on a life so well-documented it should by all rights be threadbare. … [It] represents some remarkable detective work on Light’s part, as she uncovers the life stories of Nellie and other Bloomsbury servants, all formerly first names that breeze by the Woolf reader." Moira Macdonald

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Light has done a lot of detective work and creative puzzle-solving. Perhaps appropriately, the best way into Mrs. Woolf and the Servants is to go through the back door—an appendix in which Ms. Light offers biographical summaries of the servants employed by the Woolfs. … Ms. Light’s work is well worth reading for its own sake, but the background she provides should also reinvigorate interest in Woolf’s novels." Alexandra Mullen

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The truth is that Woolf and Bell and others in their set were fairly liberal, benevolent employers. … Light’s research is thorough and she does a good job of joining social history to Woolf’s particular story." Marjorie Kehe

Critical Summary

"The sheer volume of secondary literature inspired by the life of Virginia Woolf is downright frightening," notes the Christian Science Monitor. "So can a book like … [Mrs. Woolf] possibly tell us anything new?" Critics answer with a resounding "yes," and agree that Light has uncovered an important, heretofore unexamined, aspect of Woolf’s story and class and social conventions of the time. Many reviewers praise Light’s research as "detective" work, drawing as it does on journal entries about Nellie Boxall, her cook of 18 years (whom Woolf called "rubbish") and letters between Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. Where documentation exists, Light gives dignified life to the servants’ individual stories, but doesn’t disdain Woolf’s often thorny relationships with them, thus remaining balanced in her perspective. Mrs. Woolf should appeal not only to Bloomsbury scholars, but readers of Woolf’s fiction as well.