Lynsey Hanley reviews Mrs Woolf and the Servants: the Hidden Heart of Domestic Service by Alison Light
For the first half of the 20th century, domestic service was the largest single occupation of British women.
Most middle-class households had one or more servants, many of whom had been sent across the country by families living in harsh rural or urban poverty.
Although the conditions in which they worked varied widely, the fundamental inequality of the servant-mistress relationship (it was the job of the woman of the house to order other women around), and the trauma of leaving their families, caused many servants profound distress.
"When Winifred Foley looked back on leaving her mining village in Gloucestershire at 14 for a job in London," writes Alison Light in her illuminating account, "she believed she had been 'cut in half'."
Virginia Woolf was a writer for whom true, productive solitude - the room of one's own - was hard to come by.
As a progressive woman of independent means, she tried her best to reconcile her desire to live freely and spontaneously with an atavistic urge to surrender all responsibility for herself. She had grown up in a large family that was attended to by a staff of seven; therefore, you could say, she knew no different.
Upon reaching adulthood, she would never live without some form of domestic "help", and battling the "timid spiteful servant mind" throughout her life both enraged her and sustained her. It was easier for her to regard her servants as not quite real than to accept the fact of her dependence on others.
Woolf's diary became a repository for all her meanest thoughts about her servants.
She saw in her long-standing servant Nellie Boxall's rages "human nature undressed", as though she'd plucked her out of a zoo, and could not fully convince herself that, despite deserving better conditions, they could ever have an inner life as rich and inquiring as hers.
When she tried to introduce characters into her novels based on the servants she knew, they would begin as sympathetic wholes and end as cardboard cutouts.
Meanwhile, Woolf attempted to shirk - rather than subvert - her role as mistress by simply avoiding her servants whenever possible. The deference of some domestic staff annoyed her even more than insubordination, though she'd bat both away in her diary as signs of servants' inherent stupidity.
Tired of getting into emotional arguments over pay and duties, she tried writing her orders down in a book to save having to do it in person.
When that failed - as did her repeated attempts to get rid of Boxall and other servants and to establish a truly independent life - she would feel dejected and dependent.
Later, she experimented with trying to do things for herself. She gradually learnt to cook and, by the onset of the Second World War, "boasted like a child" at serving a home-made pie with potatoes and peas that she'd prepared herself.
Light is not so unkind as to deny Woolf's achievements in the context of her times. Making pies and peeling spuds was still far more than her husband, Leonard, was capable of.
Virginia noticed that he, born merely into the middle class rather than the leisure class, was far less squeamish about dismissing or humiliating their staff (while she carried many of the same sentiments, she tended to express them in secret, in writing).
She at least struggled to rationalise her feelings about those in her employment, and attempted to turn her mix of guilt and repulsion into something resembling solidarity.
Leonard organised Fabian meetings at their Sussex home, Rodmell, at which Virginia noted the tendency of local workers to remain silent while the Londoners, much used to chuntering among themselves, automatically took charge.
Elsewhere, the burgeoning labour movement emboldened workers to speak up.
Virginia's monograph on women's right to work, Three Guineas (1938), was read by Agnes Smith, an unemployed weaver from Huddersfield, who responded with focused anger to its assumption that only "the daughters of educated men" could benefit from meaningful work and an end to patriarchy.
Smith's nine-page letter to Woolf, argues Light, is written "from the political specificity of her situation"; Three Guineas, by contrast, is produced "generically". Compare the two and the latter seems bloodless.
Where Woolf talks abstractly of the "great patriarchal machine" that prevented women of her class from working, Smith describes " 'the sick hopelessness' of being doomed to work when she wanted to stay on at school and learn".
But servants could inspire devotion in their employers as much as the other way around.
When their live-out "daily" Louie Everest was hospitalised with cancer many years after Virginia's death in 1941, Leonard visited her every day. In turn, she "stayed with him every day until the end" when he was incapacitated by a stroke.
Mrs Woolf and the Servants is a worthy successor to John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses.
Light is scrupulous in her analysis of the conditions that led to the artificial divide between Woolf and her servants, but doesn't reserve judgment when presenting evidence of real cruelty.
It's a compelling portrait of how rich and poor women of this time were locked into a strange and pernicious symbiosis, and a vital warning against social inequality.
Perhaps Woolf's greatest legacy was her diary, after all.
image credit: Virginia Woolf's servant Nellie Boxall with a foundling, nursemaid Lottie Hope, Nelly Brittain, and Virginia's niece, Angelica Bell. Photographed by Vanessa Bell in 1922