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Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury

3.73  ·  Rating Details ·  387 Ratings  ·  76 Reviews
"Superbly researched, often passionately eloquent, and enthralling throughout."—Washington Post Book World

When Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One's Own in 1929, she established her reputation as a feminist, and an advocate for unheard voices. But like thousands of other upper-class British women, Woolf relied on live-in domestic servants for the most intimate of daily
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Paperback, 400 pages
Published September 1st 2009 by Bloomsbury Press (first published August 2nd 2007)
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Petra Eggs
Virginia Woolf is my bete noir. Especially after reading this book where the depths of her hypocrisy and height of her self-centredness are quite relevatory. VW had a genius for publicity for her public face and an equal capacity for keeping the her true moral repugnance of people with less money and 'breeding' than her hidden. Where does snobbery cross the line into racism? If they are all of the same race is it possible? Yes. If one regards the others almost as another race entirely, then it i ...more
Sheila
Okay, so I read my first book by Virginia Woolf, The Waves, and hated it. Thought she was a terrible writer and didn't see why she was so successful and famous.

Then my friend Petra suggested we buddy read this book, a biography of Virginia and the servants in her life. So I readily agreed, thinking maybe this would make me see why she was so revered and famous.

Well I have now finished reading this biography, and I not only think Virginia was a bad writer, she was also a rude, snobbish, self-cent
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Jamie
Dec 27, 2008 Jamie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jamie by: Moira Russell
I've been a bit obsessed with Woolf for a coupla years now; what I'd somehow avoided until now was delving into the mountain of Woolf biographies. On the recommendation of a fellow goodreads member, I hurriedly grabbed this as part of my Xmas-presents-to-me-from-me and fortunately had an excuse to 'pleasure read' the book as part of a research project on Woolf I'm currently finishing up.

Incredibly engaging, fresh, and beautifully researched and historicized, Light's 'biography' (of sorts) examin
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Diantha Parker
Oct 21, 2009 Diantha Parker rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If a woman is to have a room of one's own, someone has to clean it...usually another woman who has no such room. That's something Virginia Woolf took for granted, but found terribly hard to discuss. This is a very intimate look at the relationship Woolf, Vanessa and the rest of their set had with their servants--about whom we also learn a great deal. The sisters spent pages and pages of their lifelong correspondence discussing Servant Problems, some of which rivaled their already complicated fam ...more
Tocotin
Enjoyed this one a lot. Luckily, it didn't make me dislike Virginia Woolf (and I was afraid it would) - because she tried to behave decently towards people who irritated her and whom she didn't understand - but it came very, very near. It's hard to believe there were (and are) people who refuse to acknowledge that as human beings, others have the same basic value as themselves - people who can look at other people and not really notice them - and become artists. There is something wrong with tha ...more
Joyce
Feb 04, 2013 Joyce rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is is a very complex treatment of Virginia Woolf's antipathy to servants due to her rather snobbish upbringing and her abhorrence of her body due to the sexual repression of the day and her own sexual assault by her half brothers. She hated being dependant on servants who represented to her the physical side of life, also she and her husband were quite tight with the penny. Also, much as she chided the servants and made fun of their mindlessness, she was very disappointed when they weren't ...more
James Murphy
Feb 02, 2010 James Murphy rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating glimpse of a facet of British society. Looking through the lens of the servant class and service Alison Light makes life in the Bloomsbury group and Virginia and Leonard Woolf her subject. In telling all this, she has to pretty much explain British prewar society and give us a history of British domestic service. She tells it well, I think. The book is a chronology of Woolf's life and an account of her uncomfortable relationship with those who worked for her. More, the book ...more
Jane
Oct 16, 2010 Jane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Alison Light said that the topic of Virginia Woolf has been thoroughly covered, except for her interaction with the women who served her as nanny or cook from her infancy until her death. This is a fascinating account of women in service, in general, from the latter part of the 19th century through the WW I and WW II years in Britain. Light describes the days' long work, the desire to lift oneself from poverty, the low pay and the shift caused by World War I when fewer and fewer girls became ser ...more
Jenny Brown
Aug 20, 2011 Jenny Brown rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
We Americans cannot begin to appreciate the extent of the snobbery and class-based cruelty of the English ruling class, especially since we tend to romanticize that same ruling class.

This brilliantly researched book uses Virginia Woolf's diaries as an entry point into documenting the lives of the servants who worked for her and her circle, earning pitifully small wages--a few pounds a month--for work that was degrading, difficult, and endless.

The selfishness of the master class is hard to belie
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Trisha
Jun 14, 2011 Trisha rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
My fascination with all things British continues to dominate my reading and this was an especially interesting book not only because it was a biography of sorts (Virginia Woolf being a apt subject) but also because of the behind the scenes glimpse into the lives of the people who made life so cushy for the upper classes. The author dug around in lots of diaries and documents to reveal a dismal glimpse into what life was like during a time (roughly from the mid 19th century up until WWII) when hu ...more
Clarice Stasz
Oct 25, 2015 Clarice Stasz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an exceptional example of history "from the bottom." Despite the difficulty of learning about Virginia Woolf's particular servants, she uncovers enough to bring them into the spotlight as individual personalities. In the process she illuminates the role of domestic service during Woolf's life, how a third of women worked as maids, cooks, and such. She probed archives to locate the origins and identities of women mentioned by a false name or a first name.


For Virginia and her sister Vanes
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Amy
May 06, 2013 Amy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have not studied a lot about Virginia Woolf and only knew her through reputation. This book surprised me at how thought provoking it is. Halfway through I had thought to give it three stars because I felt that the author wandered too much in Virginia's thoughts, but by the end, I felt I had been transported to rather foreign territory.

I had been raised with the oral history going back to my great grandparents who were close in age to Virginia Woolf, if maybe a little younger. My ancestors wer
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Amy Masonis
Jun 26, 2016 Amy Masonis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I actually have a library of books about servants, shopgirls, Studs Terkel-ish "Working" interviews and commentaries about what has happened to the class system. We are a nation of servants, now aren't we. Who do we serve? We don't even know. Business and money, but I could not care less. We might serve, but we are not controlled. Ask me again, "Boss", I've answered you before.

I love the absolute contradiction of the whole Bloomsbury Bunch thinking that they were soooo liberal, but both making t
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Abby
Sep 12, 2011 Abby rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, biography
As Alison Light's book reminds us, the Bloomsbury life wasn't all fun and games and high-minded modernism. For all her free-thinking ways, Virginia Woolf, like the rest of the upper-middle class in early 20th-century England, depended upon a team of servants to keep her and her household afloat. Light takes a look into the oft-neglected and stereotyped lives of the servants, creating a parallel portrait of their famous mistress, the often snooty and unsympathetic Woolf. The book is essentially a ...more
Ann
Aug 16, 2011 Ann rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was an excellent biography of Virginia Woolf and her servants. The author seems to have researched many aspects of her subjects thoroughly and well.

The interaction between Virginia Woolf and her servants was fascinating , and gives a new perspective of her, making a subject that's been written about many times fresh and vibrant, giving it new life.

My favorite parts, though, were about Woolf's writing, and how her relationship to her own and other Bloomsbury servants affected it. Sometimes t
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Nancy
The topic of how Virginia Woolf and those in her social group interacted with servants sounded really interesting. Unfortunately, I fear there really is not enough known to fill a book. Details on how her servants viewed the situation is important but there just is not much source material for the author to determine that. The first half of the book feels padded. I can't renew the book at my library because someone is waiting for it. It seemed to be picking up some at my stopping point of page 2 ...more
Allison
Only got a bit over halfway through this. The subject matter was quite interesting but the further I got through the book the more the promise faded. Due to the lack of insightful information about the servants the reader never gets to peer beyond the threshold of their lives downstairs. Instead, the lengthy quotes from the Woolfs letters and diaries just made me want to hear more about their fascinating world and I would have been quite happy to put down this book and pick up a biography of Vir ...more
Diane
Oct 08, 2015 Diane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell made frequent reference to servants, especially problems with them, in their letters, and Virginia included servants in her diaries and some of her writing. However, very little information exists that is from the servants' point of view, which is sad and of course limiting. But this author has managed to winkle out an amazing amount of material and has created a really brilliant exploration of the whole history of domestic service in Britain. Extreme ...more
Maggie
Oct 27, 2008 Maggie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Light should be congratulated for her incredible research in ferreting out all she could on the many servants, cooks, chars etc. who spent their time with Virginia Woolf. What I found particularly fascinating was Woolf's (and, to an extent, her generation's) insecurity and inner conflict towards domestics and the lower class. While Light brings all of Woolf's feelings to the surface (or at least what was left in the reams of paper left behind), I'm not sure she reaches any particular conclusion, ...more
Marilyn
Jan 06, 2009 Marilyn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those interested in Bloomsbury or in British 19th century social history
Recommended to Marilyn by: book review
A facinating examination of Bloomsbury from a "downstairs" perspective. It details the often difficult relationships between Virginia Woolf and her servants. She was not comfortable in her personal relationship with them, or in accepting their devotion, but yet her life was made possible by them. The description of the background of Woolf's servants provides a history of Service in Victorian times. One of the servants was a foundling, which leads to a very interesting discussion of personal phil ...more
Julie
Jan 01, 2013 Julie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Alison Light is a little "light" in capturing the spirit of Mrs. Woolf -- and her servants. A bit too rambling, to not much purpose. I was hoping for something with more substance, but instead found a hodge-podge of historical nonsense, sometimes on Virginia, sometimes on her servants. The book would have benefited immensely from a more ordered approach. Meh. This is one of the "waste of good time" books, that I end up resenting ever having picked up.
Phyllis
Dec 12, 2012 Phyllis rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fantastic book about the in service class and one literary giant's odd relationship with her servants.
When Woolf married, her family servants came with the deal.
These women knew Virginia Woolf quite well, enough so they were a constant thorn in the writer's side.

Essentially, Virginia Woolf spent the entire Great War writing to her sister and bitching about her servants.

Remarkable.
Jenna
Mar 21, 2009 Jenna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really found just about every page riveting. Full disclosure: I am one of those foaming-at-the-mouth rabid Woolf fans. (oh, sorry, no pun intended). Gave me so! Much! To think about, not just about the Woolfs but about class and writing and oh so much other stuff, just food for thought, plus slyly funny.
Sue
May 10, 2009 Sue rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: gourdon-group
This was my own selection for the book group. I had to select four recent publications for the group to choose from and this was their top choice. Most of them found it just a little 'stodgy' to read, maybe it was a little over-written? It was rather as though Ms Light had to put all the information she had found into the book without selecting some of it.
Elaine Nelson
I'm surprised at how engaging I found this book. It zooms across the scale from very intimate to broad movements of history, and always with clarity and compassion. I was frankly shocked at the centrality of service in British life, though maybe I shouldn't have been.
Sam Schulman
I can't tell you how great my expectations were for this book - and how sad I am, still, that it fell short. What a great subject!
Mary
Fascinating look at the way Virginia Woolf thought, talked, and wrote about the servants she interacted with over the course of her life. Today she's hailed as a feminist icon, but Virginia Woolf's life of the mind was only made possible by a cadre of women who cared for her body and her various homes. The way Virginia simultaneously infantilized and depended on her servants is fascinating. As a Woolf scholar herself—and the granddaughter of a former domestic servant—the author is uniquely posit ...more
Lindsey
May 01, 2011 Lindsey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Alison Light clearly does her homework. "Mrs. Woolf and the Servants" is absolutely loaded with the products of her very thorough research. Not only does she tell us as much as humanly possible about the various servants who worked for Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and others of the Bloomsbury set, but she tells us about the lives of their parents, as well. Light strives to create a clear picture of these servants, including where they came from, how they lived, and how their lives drew to a clo ...more
Samira
Oct 21, 2009 Samira rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
So there is a ridiculous Bloomsbury industry, of which I am a (relatively) unashamed consumer, though I try to keep a sense of proportion. This book is a wonderful look at the changing class lines in England in the first half of the 20th century, and it is really there that the book is at its best. In someways, it is nothing more than a gimmick to use Virginia Woolf as a foil. By talking about Woolf and HER servants, Light ensures that people will buy her book, and in many ways, any middle to up ...more
Nell
Jan 02, 2009 Nell rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Between Virginia Woolf’s parents’ generation and her own, the institution of resident servants for the upper middle classes largely disappeared. Using the Bloomsbury Group as examples, the author shows how changing lifestyles, household conveniences, the women’s suffrage and labor movements, the rising age for compulsory education, and the two World Wars contributed to its demise.

The transition was rocky for Woolf and her circle, though. They had fewer servants in smaller households than their
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