Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Book Review Club!

I'm now a member of an elite fighting force committed to blogging a book review the first Wednesday of every month. The graphic above will be permanently affixed over there on the right when I next have the time and courage to rejigger the sidebar. (Soon. Ish.)

To find the other reviews, visit Barrie Summy, who thought up and organized the whole enterprise.

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants
By Alison Light
Bloomsbury Press, 2008
ISBN 978-1596915602

Before the twentieth century, published historians were men. Women wrote letters and diaries—intending to explain themselves, maybe, but rarely with any hope of shaping history. That’s why there are so many complaints that history’s shape has been dictated for us by dead white men.

This goes double for female servants—what we know of them is what we’re told by their employers. What would your employers tell the ages about you? Would it be a rounded portrait? Would it even be accurate?

In her highly engaging Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, British historian Alison Light runs up against this problem and acknowledges it. The granddaughter of a domestic servant, she set out to give voice to women known to us chiefly through their famous employers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs. As far as anyone can tell, she’s done it.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) has never had a secure footing in history or literary criticism. She’s celebrated as a re-inventor of the novel, but lambasted for the cold elegance of her prose and a pathologist's approach to character. Personally, I love Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, but never made much progress in Jacob’s Room and haven’t even gotten up the courage to try her last novels.

In the popular imagination, she’s known as much for her bohemian friends, madness, and suicide as for her work. She’s admired for her championing of women’s causes—but then one asks oneself how she treated the women who worked for her.

For many Virginia Woolf fans (myself included), it’s her letters and diaries that draw us in. It doesn’t take much reading to figure out that Woolf’s relationship with her servants was an important but disturbing one for her, riddled with explosives. No one, it seems, could make Virginia Woolf madder than Nellie Boxall, her cook for eighteen years.

Nellie and several other women servants made the rounds of the Bloomsbury Group, the writers, artists, and thinkers who were friends, family, lovers, and support system for Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard. Raised as upper middle class Victorians, the Bloomsberries shook off their parents’ mores but held on to the trust funds and the assumption that they would never empty their own chamber pots. They were fun, interesting, idiosyncratic employers, but wildly hypocritical.

Leonard Woolf was a socialist, for heaven’s sake. And yet his autobiography doesn’t even give his gardener a last name, and heaven help the cook who served him underdone meat. His wife knew she was a hypocrite, and fretted about it. Then she’d insult someone for having “a housemaid’s soul.”

Light isn’t quite able to let us into the minds of Nellie and the others. She does her best, tracking down their biographies, extensively researching “the servant problem” and relations between the classes, quoting interviews with others who served in middle class homes between the wars. Nellie Boxall herself was interviewed for the BBC long after Virginia’s death, but she was resolutely uncontroversial.

Mostly, letters from servants were thrown away. And who had time for a diary?

The author is on firmer ground examining the employers, who provided reams of material in their published and private writing. She makes fascinating connections between Woolf’s novels and essays and her domestic relationships, all of which were profoundly influenced by her revulsion for her own and other people’s bodies. She wanted the life of the mind, difficult to achieve when the housemaid comes in to say that the water closet is overflowing again.

It’s hard for me to tell, steeped as I am in Bloomsbury lore, but this book may assume basic knowledge of the characters. It seemed to me, for instance, that the uninitiated might puzzle for several pages before figuring out that Light was telling us when and how Virginia Woolf committed suicide.

A minor confusion—a copy-editing mistake as much as anything—is Light’s tendency to call her main character “Virginia” in one sentence and “Woolf” in the next. At first it seemed she used the given name when she was talking home life and the last name when offering literary criticism, an understandable if unnecessary distinction. Later in the book there’s no rhyme or reason to it, and sometimes you have to stop and think whether she means Virginia or Leonard.

Overall, though, this is an enlightening and entertaining book, perfect for a long winter evening by the fire. Even if you had to build the fire yourself.


Barrie said...

Ellen, I'm so glad we've joined together in an elite fighting force! It's making me very feel very cool and involved. :) I love this book review. And how very interesting that you chose a nonfiction. I read a little about this book when I learned you were going to review it. Your review is better! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Oooooo.... this sounds interesting... I loved history as a kid and asked my grandmother what I could do for a career and she said "historian" but it seemed you had to wear a bow tie and that didn't appeal to me.:)

Bee said...

I already have this book on my shelf . . . started it, but then abandoned it. Your review has rekindled my interest. THANKS!

Ellen Booraem said...

Oh, definitely get back to it, Bee. I wasn't in the mood once and had to start it twice, but the second time definitely took!

Thanks for getting this going, Barrie--this is a pillar-to-post day, but I can't wait to reading the other reviews!

D.A. Riser said...

The elite fighting force. Hmm ... maybe Barrie should look into adding that onto her typewriter widget.