Mrs. Woolf & the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service

Of all stratums of society, that of the female serving class is the least examined. Whether that’s because it is, to a great extent, ‘women’s work’, and women have always suffered from poor representation in the written history of the world—their sphere is considered by many to be unimportant in the vast arena of politics, war, education—or if it’s simply that for much of history illiterate, they could often not tell their own story, doesn’t matter. So much is lost, and for a writer, that’s a terrible pity.

Mrs. Woolf & the Servants attempts, through letters, diary entries and memoirs, to document the lives of a group of servants, those of Virginia Woolf, her family and friends, the Bloomsbury group, from the late nineteenth through to about the middle of the 20th Century.

This book is extremely well documented, and interesting in many ways. What it isn’t, is a light, easy, or compelling read.

Ultimately, it documents the death of the live-in servant system, the ambivalent feelings of English literati toward their dependence on servants, and the terrible split between the ‘upper crust’ and their serving dogsbodies.

As portrayed by the author, Virginia Woolf was, as well as depressed, moody and a snob, mean-spirited on occasion, and often unbearably introspective, to the detriment of any kind of empathy for others in her household.

A fascinating book, it does drag often, and only the most determined seekers of information will read it to the end.

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Filed under Books, My Summer Reading 2008

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