Virginia, Nellie and Elsie

There is an excellent piece in today’s Guardian about Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her servant, Nellie Boxall.

It is by Alison Light, and is a chunk of her forthcoming book Mrs Woolf and the Servants. In her Forever England, Alison Light took literary criticism to places conventionally off-limits, and in this book she examines the bits of Woolf’s life that don’t get into the usual accounts by Bloomsbury-fanciers.

In the Guardian extract, she gives an intriguing picture of the love-hate felt by Woolf for the woman she depended on. (as well as a room of one’s own, maybe all women writers also need a dogsbody of their own). There is an awareness of how the War period changed the mistress-servant relationship (though Woolf, of course, preferred to pretend the shift had happened “in or about December 1910”). “All human relations have shifted, those between masters and servants, husband and wives, parents and children.” The expectations of working-class women were changing, and the traditional low pay and draughty garret were not accepted as routinely as in Victorian times. For her part, Woolf wrote in a letter that

“I am sordidly debating within myself the question of Nelly; the perennial question. It is an absurdity, how much time L. & I have wasted in talking about servants. And it can never be done with because the fault lies in the system. How can an uneducated woman let herself in, alone, into our lives? – what happens is that she becomes a mongrel; and has no roots any where.”

Are servants ever dealt with fully in Woolf’s novels?

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her.

We hear a lot about MrsD’s pleasant expedition (“What a lark! What a plunge!”) and not much about Lucy’s work – which is fair enough, since Woolf makes a great novel out of the subject she does write about. For an analysis of the master-servant relationship at this time, we need to go to the novelist that Woolf imagined as her antitype – Arnold Bennett.

In Riceyman Steps Elsie is the maid-of-all-work for the phenomenally mean Henry Earlsforward and his wife. Bennett presents Elsie as naive to the point of saintliness, and utterly devoted to her employers’ cause. When she changes from being a char to a live-in general servant there is a scene where she is persuaded to take a wage-cut in return for meagre board and lodging – and more work. As a result of this, the Earlsforwards pay Elsie only £20 a year (Alison Light tells us that “The Woolfs were modest payers: by the late 20s Nellie was earning about £50 a year when the average wage for a cook was £56 (though wages might drop as low as £30).”)

The relations between Elsie and the Earlsforwards are untypical, but Elsie and the Child, in a short sequel to Riceyman Steps, Bennett has more to say about the master-servant relationship. Elsie has now joined her shell-shocked Joe in the family of Dr Raste, and the story examines the complexities of the master-servant power relationship. The employers have the economic upper hand, and yet they are dependent on the servants (Hegel wrote about this, I think, as the dialectic of the master and the slave). In particular, the Rastes’ daughter Eva is emotionally dependent on Elsie, and refuses to leave her to go away to school. She indicates that she loves Elsie more than her parents. This creates a situation of immense awkwardness in the house – the more powerful for being unspoken. the social taboos of the time would not let the situation be discussed. Luckily shell-shocked Joe, who is impervious to social niceties, blurts out the truth, and things afterwards can be resolved.

On the basis of the Guardian extract, Alison Light’s book promises to say a lot about the unspoken (unspeakable) relationship between mistress and servants. I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing.

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