Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Virginia Woolf is a feminist icon, and her husband, Leonard, was a committed socialist and supporter of workers' rights. Yet, says Light, in this fresh take on Bloomsbury, the couple perpetuated the class system by paying a pittance to their charwoman. In her attempt to restore the servants to the Bloomsbury story, Light also ruminates about whether the dependence of Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, on their assorted live-in maids and cooks plays havoc with the idealized image of them as bohemian, free women creating a new kind of life. Light also dissects Woolf's fictional servants as a window into contemporary social class prejudices and delves into the personal histories of Woolf's servants in context with their peers. British scholar Light (Forever England), the granddaughter of a live-in domestic, often seems to be pushing a personal agenda, and her insistence that without the hard work of the servants there would have been no Bloomsbury is unconvincing, yet her analyses of both the Bloomsbury notables and the servant class of their time are deft and engrossing. Illus. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
The largely untold stories of the live-in servants who eased, enriched, complicated and frustrated the domestic tranquility of Virginia Woolf and others in her circle. Light (History/Univ. of East London; Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars, 1991, etc.) brings all her scholarly skills and imagination to bear on the task of illuminating the lives of people whom history has often ignored. (See also: Ruth Brandon's Governess, 2008.) Reading Woolf's diaries and letters, the author was surprised by the emotional, often negative energy the novelist invested in her servants. This sent Light back into the fiction--she spends some time discussing the roles of servants in Woolf's novels--and into family and public records, where she discovered a surprising amount of material on the people who served the writer from cradle to grave. Growing up in the cosseted class, sisters Virginia and Vanessa Stephens could neither cook nor clean nor do much of anything for themselves until war and marriage altered their circumstances. The author focuses on several individuals, among them Sophie Farrell, who worked for the family for a half-century, and Nellie Boxall, whose contentious choreography with Virginia enlivens much of the text. When Woolf finally dismissed her, Nellie landed in the household of notable English actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. Although Light is most interested in humanizing the servants, she also offers heavy but digestible sections of social history and literary criticism. We learn about the rise and fall of domestic service, and the author contrasts Woolf's liberalism in her fiction with her class-consciousness in her kitchen. Light also savages the caricatures of the Woolf servants in the 2003 film The Hours. Only the clich-ridden prose ("in the same boat," "stuck to her guns") slightly mars this groundbreaking work of scholarship. An essential addition to the alpine pile of books about Woolf. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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