Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read

Mrs Woolf and the Servants – Alison Light #20BooksofSummer

Non Fiction

I choose to read this book after being so impressed with Alison Light’s book exploring the working lives of her ancestors in Common People that I read earlier this year.

Now obviously as I’m a reader and I know the basic details about the life of Virginia Woolf, but as I was to discover, that is a world away from looking at her life in her home settings, in relation to the servants that lived with and worked for this very literary woman. This book is an intimate portrayal of a woman at home, as part of a family but most pertinently in her relations with her servants which let’s just say were more complex than the popular portrayal that we are used to.

The first servant to appear in Virginia’s life was Sophie Farrell who was a servant to Julia Stephen, Virginia’s mother. We learn about how Sophie, in common with so many girls of her background left her home to work away ‘in service’ From this starting point we chart the history of women who lived their lives serving others up to the time of WWII. Alison Light also points out the type of ‘live out’ servants that are now part of modern lives. But let’s go back to towards the end of the Victorian period where Sophie Farell is working as one of servants in South Kensington. Following the deaths of so many people who were important to her the siblings set up home in Bloomsbury to live a more bohemian lifestyle and it was here that the Bloomsbury Group was formed. However the siblings relied on servants at this time, and as the book tells us Virginia and her sister did for the rest of her lives.

So where did Alison Light get all this information on the servants from? Well the starting point is the letters between the two sisters and her own diaries where unfiltered views of the women who gave her the space to have a room of her own were indelibly marked upon page after page.

I’m going to be honest, I found the Virginia Woolf in her own words, quite a hypocritical and snobbish woman. I was constantly reminding myself that this was a different time where expectations of life were set in stone, but it didn’t stop my overwhelming sympathy for the women who served and my feeling of contempt for the author.

Although Alison Light freely admits that many of the servants could not be traced, in these instances, because they weren’t even afforded a name, she has done some exceptional work in tracing some of the others. We are given a surprising amount of detail about a few most memorably of Nellie Boxhall who was eventually dismissed from the Woolf household. And for me it is the time after they left the Woolf household that are so sad. There were no pensions; if the servants weren’t kept on as family retainers then they could end up with no security whatsoever, in some cases after devoting half a century in serving. This is just one shocking aspect, the other being the way the members of the Bloomsbury set, well into the war period seemed to pass their servants backwards and forwards between the households as if these people were no more than useful objects.

Pretty most of the women on my maternal side up until those born in the 20th Century worked in service. I’d always wondered how the young girls of 12, 13 & 14 ended up living and working so far from where they’d been born and the stories of the servants researched by Alison Light included the hiring fairs and the preference for rural maids that were thought to be more malleable than their town and city cousins.

There are simply so many fascinating facts that it is impossible to put within a short review but if you are interested in the author or the lives of servants during this time period, you could do far worse than to read Mrs Woolf and the Servants.

Mrs Woolf and the Servants is my tenth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge It has opened my eyes to the life I would have lived if I had been born 100 years earlier and of course a less welcome insight into one of the most celebrated women writers of her time.

First Published UK: 2007
Publisher: Fig Tree
No of Pages:400
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

18 thoughts on “Mrs Woolf and the Servants – Alison Light #20BooksofSummer

  1. Amazing & appalling as it may seem to us, employers in those days often thought about their servants the way we’d about a stove or a fridge, household appliances. When I taught 19th & early 20th century literature it shocked my students that Mrs Woolf could have servants & profess socialism.


    1. I think it was the hypocritical aspect that struck me – plus in letters she was professing to have no help and yet that wasn’t true – presenting yourself in one way and acting in another is one of the things I struggle with no matter how famous the person might be!


  2. What an interesting way to look at someone’s life, Cleo! Certainly the way people treated their servants said an awful lot about them. I really respect the amount of research that must have gone into this book, too. Perhaps Virginia Woolf wasn’t warm and friendly with her servants, but what a fascinating set of insights.


    1. It was very enlightening although I’m going to have to give Mrs Woolf’s books a miss for a while. As you say, the amount of research must have been immense – it is so well presented and quite a lot of detail given for the lives of some of the servants allowing the reader to make parallels about lives of other servants in different households.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t read much non-fiction, but I must say that this one sounds quite interesting and definitely piques my interest. I’m not a big Virginia Woolf fan anyway, so I probably would also find her snobbish, etc. I’ll note this one and if I run across a copy at the library, I might pick it up. Food for thought indeed.


    1. I wish I’d read this after I’d read Mrs Dalloway which is on my Classic Club list as I really took against Virginia Woolf. Alison Light must have spent an absolute age researching this book and it held my attention all the way through as the lives both before, during and after their employment by the Woolf family.


  4. When I think of Virginia Woolf and her home life, I recall bits of another book that includes some of those moments: The Hours. I loved that book by Michael Cunningham…and the movie, too.


  5. Fascinating! I hated the way Woolf talked about the servants in Mrs Dalloway and thought she came over (Woolf, not Dalloway) as a deeply unpleasant snob of the worst kind. It left me wondering why so many women seem to revere her – I thought she seemed quite obnoxious! So I’m not altogether surprised that this book seems to show she thought of her servants as possessions rather than employees. Of course, it was a different time, but she always comes over worse to me than most of her contemporaries…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds like such an interesting read. I usually read fiction mostly but every now and then when a topic interests me I’ll delve into non-fiction.

    I’m fascinated with history around the the WW2 era and how we got to that point. Thanks for the great review and pointing me in the direction of what sounds like a book I’d enjoy 🙂


    1. I do enjoy history and most especially that which concerns the changes in women’s lives and with so many girls going into service it was enlightening from that angle too. There is a section that talks about the difference in lifestyle between those who worked in factories during the wars to those in service too.
      I found this to be a fascinating read on a number of levels and although I don’t read loads of non-fiction I do like a change every now and again.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. yikes! I feel as though this is a book I’m best to pass up, I don’t want to know any negative things about VW, although I would probably hate her after reading this!


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