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

3.6 of 5 stars 3.60  ·  rating details  ·  218 ratings  ·  58 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 tas...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published September 1st 2009 by Bloomsbury Press (first published August 2nd 2007)
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Petra X
Virginia Woolf is my bete noir. Especially after reading Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury where the depths of her hypocrisy and height of her self-centredness are quite relevatory about one who had a genius for publicty, for a public face and an equal one for her keeping the her true moral repugnancy 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 anoth...more
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...more
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...more
Diantha Parker
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
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
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
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
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
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
Jenny Brown
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...more
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...more
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
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
Jan 06, 2009 Marilyn rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  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
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
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.

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.
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.
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.
Virginia Woolf employed people. She also got a return on her financial investments. What someone makes of that probably tells us more about them than either VW or the servants. Not much from the servant's perspective here at all. As such the book is really more about Alison Light's odd little notions. As the book documents, servants had options. They could emigrate. They could find other employment. To imply that people employed as servants nevertheless were captives is demeaning to them. At one...more
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
Joan Colby
A fascinating look at Victorian daily life among the upper classes and their servants, a way of life now vanished. The focus is on Virginia Woolf who often wrote of her relations with her servants in her journals as well as the servants in question. This was an era of a markedly class society and upper-class women such as Woolf had mixed sentiments about their servants both relying on them and resenting them. The servants usually were seekers of a better life; country girls escaping the toil of...more
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...more
Liz DeCoster
True to the title, the book uses the relationships between Virginia Woolf and her servants to explore the lives of these servants at the beginning of the 20th century. The author explores the conflicts between the bohemian, cerebral lifestyle desired by various members of the Bloombsury group and the quotidian lifestyle of the people in their employ. Light uses quotations liberally, primarily from Woolf's diaries, but also from surviving correspondence between Virginia and Vanessa, Vita Sackvill...more
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
I found this book quite heavy going, which I think may be more of a comment on me than it is on the book itself, since I don't read a lot of non-fiction normally. I'm fascinated by Virginia Woolf, though, and this book called out to me, somehow, and I'm really glad I read it. It sheds a lot of light not only on Woolf's home life but also the influences that it had upon her work and her worldview, and it's interesting to see how often her situation at home was at odds with her progressive politic...more
I did enjoy this, but it didn't fully capture me. I was intrigued by the prospect of learning about servants in England vis a vis the focus on Virginia Woolf's servants. The challenge, of course, is that it's hard to come by primary sources from the servants own perspectives. Light handles this pretty well, but my lack of engagement reflects - to my mind - that she is not wholly successful in telling the tale she proposes.
I have been reading books by Virginia Woolf and about her for nearly three decades. fortunately Virginia Woolf left such a rich record of writing -- including her private diaries as well as her published novels and stories--and her life story complicated, representative and yet unique. Many gifted and perceptive critics and scholars have been inspired to weigh in.
Ms Light uses the example of Virginia Woolf and her experiences with servants throughout her lifetime as a springboard for an enlighte...more
Dec 11, 2008 Faith added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Woolf scholars only
I suppose this book would only have been undertaken by an academic, but that's what makes it disappointing. I wanted to read a history of servants and their mistresses, or at least read the history of Virginia Woolf's servants, but noooooo. We have to wade through dull pages stuffed with facts about Woolf's grandparents, and her parents, and her "rest cures," and on and on, the kind of material an English professor collects and then, in this case, felt she needed to use. There were a few bright...more
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...more
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