Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Virginia Woolf's 1931 "Cook Sketch"

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Virginia Woolf's 1931 "Cook Sketch"

Article excerpt

In a 1997 Woolf Studies Annual article Susan Dick brought to light typescript drafts of an unpublished story by Virginia Woolf entitled "The Cook" held in the Monks House Papers in Sussex University Library. Dick convincingly reads this story as evidence not only of Woolf's long-standing preoccupation with life writing but also her belief in "the importance of the unrecorded lives of domestic servants" (123). (1) According to Dick, Biddy Brien, the eponymous cook of the story, and her long years of service with the middle-class Savery family, are closely based on Virginia Woolf's own childhood cook, Sophia Farrell, who later worked for the Stephen children when they moved to Bloomsbury. Dick dates "The Cook" drafts to the late twenties or early thirties, referring to Woolf's contemporary diaries and letters to support this dating. However, she singles out the following extract from Woolf's October 1931 diary as "the only reference Woolf makes to writing something about a cook" (129):

Dear me, I spent 20 minutes dashing off a cooks talk--so much I need random rollicking humour. Oh what a grind that [writing The Waves] was! It comes over me now. Literally I have a pain in my head--but my head has many pains--when I try to stretch another book--(D4 48)

Dick points out that: "Although the editors of the Diary assume Woolf is referring in this entry to 'The Cook,' the absence [...] of anything approaching 'random rollicking humour' leaves this assumption open to question" (129). Susan Dick's hunch is correct since another--both lost and rollicking--"cooks talk" written by Woolf can be found in the pages of her 1931 notebook held in the Morgan Library in New York.

Written in the same period that Dick suggests the Monks House stories were written, this unfinished, unpublished sketch, which I will refer to as the "Cook Sketch," is also concerned with a cook. However, it departs from the Monks House story in key formal and thematic ways. Most strikingly, the "Cook Sketch" is written mainly in the voice of the cook, a crucial difference from "The Cook" in which a narrator records the story of faithful Victorian cook, Biddy Brien, only at times rendering her speech within quotation marks. This article discusses the implications of Woolf's act of class ventriloquism in the sketch and suggests how it might inform our understanding of Woolf's (often vexed) attitudes towards class. The paper also contributes to the recent trend in Woolf studies, described by Anna Snaith as providing "a more nuanced and contextualized treatment of issues surrounding Woolf, class and gender" (9). I establish the literary and historical contexts for Woolf's sketch, building on Susan Dick's article in which she identifies Woolf's concurrent completion of The Waves and her fraught revision of the "Introductory Letter" to the Women's Co-operative Guild authored collection Life as We Have Known It as key contexts for "The Cook." Before moving on to these critical considerations, I will provide a brief overview of the rich and wide-ranging narrative of the "Cook Sketch," identifying some of its central motifs and characters.


While "The Cook" opens with rather conventional introductions, there are no such formalities in the Morgan "Cook Sketch," which opens in medias res:

   Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, certainly we will have mutton for dinner.
   {And} But what is the price of mutton in this neighbourhood, I said
   to my cook. And she said [...] (2)

This opening chain of distracted affirmatives and the slightly disgruntled question that follows about the price of mutton are the only words assigned to the cook's employer in the "Cook Sketch." The rest of the story is dedicated to the cook's prolonged and expansive response to this question.

   I think you ought to go [yourself] & speak to Mr Livestock--{Why}
   He has been palming us off with second rate joints ever so often
   lately. … 
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