Saturday, 19 July 2008

Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light

In her introduction, Alison Light makes plain that an overarching History of Domestic Service would be impossible to achieve, as service was such a pervasive form of work and servants' lives were so little documented. This book focuses on domestic service between the wars, when the status of women, the types of work they could access, and relations between the classes all underwent significant change. In particular, Light has made use of Virginia Woolf's writings about her own domestic servants, and traced their history outside of those writings; this gives them solidity and status, and relieves of them the role of irritants in Woolf's life. Woolf's own efforts to understand her feelings about her servants, and the master-servant relationship, are acknowledged and explored; she is not simply the oppressive mistress of the house. The rescue of Sophia Farrell and Nelly Boxall for posterity, the exploration of the reliance of modernist cultural experiementation on conservative ways of life, and the subtle exploration of the nature of service, from both perspectives, makes this a deeply satisfying and provocative book.

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