I am very fond of writings about domesticity. I also love those scamps at Bloomsbury. So when Alison Light published a book about Virginia Woolf AND her servants, well I was simply beside myself.
Mrs. Woolf and the Servants shines a light at the “downstairs “ of Bloomsbury’s “upstairs.”
As a child, I longed to live at Bloomsbury, well more pointedly Sissinghurst Castle with summers at Charleston. Virginia was always a bit too dour for me. As with most childhood fantasy, I longed for the imaginary Bloomsbury, where everyone slept with everyone else, children were raised communally, wine flowed and talk was of books, painting, and gardens. Tea was served promptly at 4 o’clock or perhaps 3:30 if we were idle or maybe 5 if we were planning a late supper.
In my fantasy, life was idyllic and all was right with universe. In my dreams I never saw the faces of the people who brought the tea, weeded the gardens, or ran out to fetch painting supplies. They never spoke, they never appeared, they were the ghosts of my story. In a way, they were ghosts in the Bloomsbury story.
Alison Light tells a striking story of life between the wars and the profound difference between “them” and “us.”
Of her servant, Nellie Boxall, Virginia Woolf wrote:
“She is in a state nature; untrained; uneducated, to me almost incredibly without the power of analysis or logic; so that one sees a human mind wriggling undressed.”
Woolf and Boxall had a long and tumultuous relationship marked by fighting, firing, quitting and in the end a strange affection for each other. With all their liberalism in politics and lifestyles, the Bloomsbury set loved their live-in servants. The fact that they were paid sub-par wages, that they were treated much like chattel, that their lives were deemed somehow insignificant, never seemed to matter.
Virginia Woolf once got the idea of replacing Nellie Boxall with Grace Higgens, the maid and cook at Charleston. Instead, she sent Boxall to study with the famed French chef, Marcel Boulestin. You know my attachment to cookbooks and I would love to have a "Bloomsbury" edition, but alas, there exists no Nellie Boxall cookbook. It was often said that her ice creams and crème brûlées kept Virginia Woolf going.
Though Light's main focus is on Virginia Woolf, she gives a glimpse of other’s in the circle. Grace Higgens spent fifty years with Vanessa Bell’s family, often accompanying them to France. When Vanessa found herself alone, she often broke with strict etiquette and sat down to dinner with Grace. She told Virginia that Grace was “extraordinarily nice” but went on to say:
"She is, like all the uneducated, completely empty-headed really, and after a bit gets terribly on one’s nerves. …One has practically no common ground in common.”
Grace Higgens did keep a collection of recipes. The small booklet features her recipes and a nice introduction by Quentin Bell. Grace at Charleston is featured at Cookbook Of The Day.
It is ironic with Virginia Woolf's desire to have a "room of one's own" that she never envisioned such a room for the women who worked and lived with her. It is hard to imagine an era where such total disregard is practiced while preaching something entirely different. Well, not too hard to imagine, but still a bit disconcerting. The era between the wars fundamentally changed Britain. Education become more readily available and young women who in previous centuries were headed off to become the chattel of grand houses now saw the possibility of expanding work opportunities.
If you are fan of Virginia Woolf or domesticity or both, do give this book a read.