THE COOK WHO ROASTED WOOLF; Seaside Servant ... Virginia, Left, with Her Nephew Julian Bell and Mabel Selwood, the Bell Family Nurse, at Studland, Dorset

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), August 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

THE COOK WHO ROASTED WOOLF; Seaside Servant ... Virginia, Left, with Her Nephew Julian Bell and Mabel Selwood, the Bell Family Nurse, at Studland, Dorset


Byline: CRAIG BROWN

Mrs Woolf And The Servants by Alison Light Penguin/Fig Tree [pounds sterling]20 .[pounds sterling]18(0845 606 4213)

Back in the Seventies there were as many books published about Virginia Woolfand the Bloomsbury Group as there now are about the miserable childhoods ofTV's bustiest soap stars.

After a while, people grew so fed up with Bloomsbury cookbooks and Bloomsburyphoto albums and books called I Once Met Virginia Woolf's Niece that the jokestarted going around that they would soon be publishing the laundry lists ofthe Bloomsbury Group.

Oddly enough, this was when I began to perk up: I still reckon you could learnmuch more from a detailed study of their unwashed sheets, shirts, pants andtablecloths than from yet another sensitive biography of a minor hanger-on.

As far as I know, those laundry lists were never published, but Alison Light'snew book goes one step better. At first sight, I imagined that Mrs Woolf AndThe Servants was just another throwback to the epidemic of Bloomsburitis in theSeventies. But how wrong I was: it is in fact a finely written account of thatperiod in the 20th Century when both masters and servants were becomingincreasingly uneasy in their positions.

In many ways Virginia Woolf, for all her twitchy self-awareness, is thefall-guy: had she not chronicled her own tantrums and irritations with herservants so very diligently in her diaries, then Alison Light would have had toburrow elsewhere for evidence against other employers, from other sources.

Those who find the Bloomsburys precious, self-centred, pretentious and snobbishwill doubtless lick their lips as they turn the pages of Mrs Woolf And TheServants.

Certainly, Virginia Woolf's letters and her lengthy and, to my mind, wonderfuldiaries offer acres of evidence for the prosecution.

'Oh, let's not talk about the servants! They're too incomprehensible!' shewrites to her sister Vanessa at one point, but she could no more stop talkingabout her servants than a horse could stop swishing its tail at the flies thatbuzz around it.

Of Nellie Boxall, the woman who was her cook for 20-odd years, she wrote atvarious times that she was 'a mongrel' with 'a timid spiteful servant mind',that she was ' insufferably mean, selfish and spiteful', and 'incurably fussy,nervy, insubstantial'.

'I looked into her little shifting greedy eyes,' Woolf once wrote of Nellie,'and saw nothing but malice and spite.' When not being rude about her cook inparticular, Virginia Woolf (has ever a great writer been more aptly named?)fell back on abusing the working classes in general. She found it 'detestable'to hear her servants moving about. Hardly a bundle of laughs herself, she notedsolemnly that 'the poor have no sense of humour'.

On a visit to Oxford Street, she is horrified at all those shoppers 'deformedand stunted and vicious and sweating'. One of her most peculiarly masochisticpleasures was to sit in the public conveniences of department stores,eavesdropping on the underclass in the hope of understanding them better. Butshe was always disappointed. 'They were powdering and painting, those commonlittle tarts,' she snaps. One of the key moments in this great treasury ofliberal-left snobbery comes with the General Election of 1929, when Virginiarealises to her horror that her servants are planning to vote Labour, just likeher. 'I don't want to be ruled by Nelly,' she exclaims, indignantly, 'it wouldbe a disaster.'

So there is plenty of opportunity for us all to tut-tut self-righteously at thehypocritical snootiness of this woman who saw herself at the forefront of a newfeminist age. But the reason Virginia Woolf is such a good diarist is that sheis an honest - sometimes viciously honest - chronicler of her own thoughts andfeelings, and to hell with the raised eyebrow of posterity. Most of us try topresent an idealised image of ourselves to the world: her virtue was that shedid not. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

THE COOK WHO ROASTED WOOLF; Seaside Servant ... Virginia, Left, with Her Nephew Julian Bell and Mabel Selwood, the Bell Family Nurse, at Studland, Dorset
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.