Imperfect Union

A brilliant new book probes the intimate, unequal relationship between Virginia Woolf and the woman who cared for her.
Brett Ryder

If I were reading this,” a 1929 entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary records,

if it were a book that came my way, I think I should seize with greed on the portrait of Nelly, and make a story—perhaps make the whole story revolve around … her character—our efforts to get rid of her—our reconciliations.

“Nelly” is Nellie Boxall, Woolf’s cook for 18 years.

“By rights,” Woolf wrote, Lottie—the parlormaid—“should have a whole chapter to herself.” But as we know, Woolf’s great servant novel doesn’t exist. The literary historian Alison Light suggests, in her penetrating, nuanced book Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, that though she tried, Woolf never could write about poor people. Perhaps not least, Light posits, because she was wary of the “glamour” of slumming. Woolf criticized work by Edith Sichel, a Victorian “poor peopler,” because her accounts avoided the mention of “copulation or w.c’s.”

Woolf herself stinted on copulation, and I don’t remember even one WC in her work. Having grown up in a house with seven servants who lived in what Woolf referred to as “dark insanitary places” in the basement or the attic, the writer understood that she knew very little about the poor. But she did write about her servants in her letters and diaries. For a time, Virginia and her sister, Vanessa Bell, wrote to each other “every day about their servants’ doings.”

Why didn’t those doings make it into her fiction?

Light tells us two resonant facts in her preface. Her own grandmother had been a live-in servant, after she’d been put in a workhouse following her parents’ death. She’d said she was “treated like dirt” by other women; at 16 her hair turned white following a breakdown. Light also tells us that her own feelings about the material of this book changed after she cared for her husband before his death. “It was my first experience of looking after someone else’s every need since I was not a mother.” I assume this to mean that caregiving is not always an experience of degradation and that dependency, even in its extremes, can offer opportunities for great acts of tenderness. Light tells us:

I wanted to write this book to get to the bottom of some of those feelings which I associated with the “class consciousness” I had grown up with … the messy, painful, intimate, damaging feelings of inferiority, envy, deference and belligerence.

While she attempts to chronicle the unrecorded lives of servants, another subterranean movement follows Light’s developing understanding of the nature of dependency, from her first position—granddaughter of a woman who was “treated like dirt”—to her role as the wife who nursed her dying husband. Light had hoped to present the lives of servants in a way that would “upstage those of their employers,” but that didn’t turn out to be possible, because the servants’ versions of their own stories don’t exist. In her research, she encountered tantalizing close calls. A Bloomsbury governess left a half-written novel about her time with the Bells (Vanessa found the writings “bitter”), but the document didn’t survive. Unable to tell the story in the servants’ own words, Light gleans their lives through the records left by those they worked for. “Servants may leave only vestigial traces in the official histories of the past,” Light writes, “but they have always loomed large in the imagination of their employers.”

Well, in the case of Woolf’s mother, not really. Julia Stephen moved through her home with serene efficiency, supervising servants who, by all accounts, loved her. One doesn’t feel that the servants loomed large in her imagination. She was at peace with the idea of having them. Woolf’s relationship with servants—her caregivers—was always more central and thus more fraught. Woolf attempted suicide for the first time after her father’s death, when she was 22, and for the first years of her marriage, she was in a state of breakdown or recovery. Symptoms that plagued her early life—headaches, sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, guilt, and an aversion to food—returned. (Several books have been written about her anorexia.) Her inability to eat if she was agitated made food and the person who prepared it for her a matter of paramount importance. Vanessa told the newlywed Leonard “how much better Virginia ate when she was helped,” and the sisters’ childhood cook, Sophie Farrell, was summoned back for a short stay.

Although Light’s book follows the lives of several Bloomsbury servants and traces the changing supply and demand for domestic service from the Victorian age to the postwar period, the central story chronicles Virginia Woolf’s turbulent relationship with Nellie Boxall. Boxall came as a live-in servant in 1916. Light imagines that Woolf must have appeared a “fragile woman” 10 years her senior, “in an old dressing-gown propped up on the sofa.” Like her new employer, Boxall had lost her mother at a young age (she began working at 14, just two years after her mother’s death) and also suffered from “nerves.”

Neither Virginia nor her sister knew how to cook. As different as the talented daughters were from their Victorian mother, they too found themselves dependent on servants, but much less happily so. And, while Vanessa could somehow work amid the clutter of bohemian family life, Virginia needed her comforts—particularly carefully prepared food—in order to write. The Woolf household “revolved around the routines which made it possible for her to write,” Light tells us: “regular meals, a rest after lunch, not too many visitors, no late nights.”

Boxall lived with the Woolfs for 18 years; for more than half that time, she was the only servant in the house. Reading their saga, one has the sense of a marriage. As might be expected with two such similar people, it was a ride with sulks, recriminations, weeping, supplication—and pages of analysis in Virginia’s diaries, where the fights dramatized their closeness.

This is … one of those stupendous moments—one of those painful, ridiculous, agitating moments which make one half sick … I’m excited too; & feel free & then sordid; & unsettled; & so on—I’ve told Nelly to go; after a series of scenes … And in the midst of the usual anger, I looked into her little shifting greedy eyes, & saw nothing but malice & spite there she doesn’t care for me [italics mine].

While servants may have lingered somewhere in Woolf’s mother’s imagination or at least on her to-do lists, it’s hard to imagine Julia Stephen, or her incarnations as Mrs. Ramsay or Mrs. Dalloway, so plaintively wanting to be liked by a just-fired cook.

After the “series of scenes,” Nellie bicycled four miles to get cream for the Woolfs’ supper; the two fought when Nellie would not make marmalade. Nellie prepared Virginia’s bath, and carried food and milk to her on a tray. For Virginia’s 36th birthday, she hand-knit red socks, which the writer apparently enjoyed wearing in the mornings. Nellie danced the foxtrot listening to the gramophone. Virginia had her take lessons with the celebrity chef Marcel Boulestin (many of their rapprochements involved food). In 1924, Nellie gave notice “for the 165th time.” She would work for the Woolfs another 10 years.

Like most intense relationships, Woolf’s with Nellie mingled anger and kindness, forgiveness and grievance. The Woolfs “lent” Nellie to Vanessa. When Nellie made jam from seven pounds of hand-picked blackberries (a reversal from her former refusal to make marmalade), Woolf took it as “her way of thanking me for having Lottie—after all, she has no other. And one tends to forget it.” In her diary, Woolf described Nellie as “almost insufferably mean, selfish & spiteful … a human mind wriggling undressed.” But as a postscript to a letter to Leonard, she scrawled, “Love to Nelly.” She named a kitten Boxall after Nellie—“to ingratiate her.”

Most of the complaints on Nellie’s part seemed to be about having too much work. She angled for another helper. On Virginia’s side of their eternal fight was an avalanche of hurt feelings. What is this, if not the story of a durable bond between people who form an imperfect fit? Or is it the story of the ways one woman uses another, because she can? The distinction plagues Light and generates the conflicted momentum of her book. The Woolfs obsess about “the question of Nelly.” Light endlessly worries the problem of Virginia Woolf, who left behind beautiful work but required a servant’s help to stay sane enough to do that work.

Woolf achieved financial success with the publication of Orlando in 1928. But as their standard of living rose, the Woolfs began to wonder whether they needed to keep Nellie.

I am sordidly debating within myself … the perennial question ... It is an absurdity how much time L. & I have wasted in talking about servants.

Woolf thought she wanted a “daily,” a “liver out” who would treat her “as an employer, not friend.” In the summer of 1929, Woolf attempted to cook the dinners. She wrote to Vita Sackville-West that she was “free forever of cooks. I cooked veal cutlets and cake today. I assure you it is better than writing these idiotic books.”

As Light observes, Woolf was happy to cook, but apparently not to clean.

On a rare occasion when Virginia found herself doing the dishes, she was amazed at the effort: “I’ve been washing up lunch—how servants preserve either sanity or sobriety if that is nine 10ths of their lives—greasy ham—God knows.”

In 1929, after Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, during another of their “scenes,” Nellie asked Woolf to leave her room. “Sick and shivery” (as Light imagines the nervous writer), Virginia decided to fire her the next day, but instead the Woolfs compromised again, hiring a char to do more of the rough work (cleaning lavatories).

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