1925, London, New York, Paris:
Metropolitan Modernisms –
Parallax and Palimpsest
And today, for the 165th time, Nelly has given notice – Won’t be dictated to: must do as other
girls do. This is the fruit of Bloomsbury. On the whole I’m inclined to take her at her word.
The nuisance of arranging life to suit her fads, & the pressure of ‘other girls’ is too much, good
cook though she is, & honest, crusty old maid too, dependable, in the main, affectionate,
kindly, but incurably fussy, nervy, unsubstantial. Anyhow, the servant question no longer
much worries me.
(Virginia Woolf, Diary, Tuesday 6 January 1925)
Virginia and Leonard Woolf saw in the New Year at Monks House, Rodmell, their country retreat, and returned on 2 January 1925 to their metropolitan home in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury. Woolf’s first diary entry for the year records another row with her cook, Nelly Boxall, whose spirited defiance Woolf recognises as partly her own doing – the ‘fruit’ of the Bloomsbury group’s progressive, egalitarian politics and notoriously easy-going domestic arrangements (Woolf 1977–84: 3: 3). The spat with her servant forms a timely coda to Woolf’s famous assertion, in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’, which she illustrates with reference to the behaviour and character of ‘one’s cook’ (Woolf 1986–94: 3: 421–2). Woolf’s essay describes a shift from the Edwardian to the Georgian era, in art and life, in which ‘all human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature’ (Woolf 1986–94: 3: 422). The ‘Victorian cook’ – ‘a leviathan in the lower depths’ – is surpassed by ‘the Georgian cook’ – ‘a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat’ (Woolf 1986–94: 3: 422) – and now to argue with her mistress.
Woolf’s pronouncements about 1910 articulate a sense of change inevitably shared by many of her contemporaries. Cultural and political unrest in 1910 marked the beginning of a period which witnessed the Balkan Wars, the cataclysm of the Great War (the First World War), the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, the execution of the Tsar (1918), the creation of an Irish Free State (1922), the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1923), the Teapot Dome affair (scandalising the United States in the early 1920s), the foundation of an Italian Fascist State in 1924, and, in the same year, the death of Lenin and the beginning of Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union. Within Britain,