And Nellie had her own moment of fame: she was featured in an advertisement for a porcelain-enameled gas cooker, under the heading “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Laughton’s Cook Tells You How to Roast Beef to Perfection.”
When the Laughtons went to the United States, in 1939, they asked her along, but she returned to Surrey, where she’d grown up, and lived again with Lottie. Nellie worked as cook in a hospital canteen during World War II. Lottie worked in the local laundry. In the 1950s, Nellie bought a house; the Laughtons had given her furniture. “The girl from the family of 10 got her own house,” Light tells us. Nellie was “the first to have an extension built, and a bathroom and indoor toilet put in, the first to have a television … Lottie did all the cleaning; Nellie, the cooking.”
Nellie died in 1965, without a will. (Although Lottie owned nothing, the Boxall family allowed Nellie’s longtime friend to remain. But without Nellie, Light tells us, Lottie fell apart and moved to a public home that had once been a workhouse.) By all outward signs, Nellie was able to shake off her history of cleaning Virginia Woolf’s chamber pots. Even on her own, she never cleaned house again.
As we all know, Virginia fared less well.
After they fired Nellie, the Woolfs mainly hired “livers out.” Their income increased throughout the ’30s, profits from Flush bought a “new pond, regrouted the old one, and paved the front garden.” The couple constructed a summer studio for Virginia. New fireplaces were added, and a dormered room under the roof became a library.
Despite all this optimistic renovation, the cottages where Leonard’s gardener and their “liver out” lived, each with spouses and children, remained damp, “without hot water, bathrooms, or water-closets.” For four adults and five children, they had only an outside privy until after the Second World War.
On the morning of the day she died, Woolf dusted the house with her “liver out,” who treated her more like “an employer” than Nellie ever had. One wonders, as one wonders after every suicide, whether at that last moment, an intimacy, even an ambivalent intimacy, could have saved her.
Virginia and Leonard frequently used the word housemaid as an insult. “What a housemaid[’]s mind he has,” Woolf said of Edward Sackville-West, the cousin of her lover, Vita Sackville-West. She found the noise of servants in the house agitating, with their “talk talk talk.” She noted the bad teeth of the poor. Yet, the worst passage of class ugliness is this sober opinion, drenched with pity:
The poor have no … manner or self-control to protect themselves with; we have a monopoly of all the generous feelings.
But though Woolf had described Nellie as a “mongrel,” a “poor drudge,” and a “domestic tyrant,” when the BBC interviewed Boxall in 1956, she recalled making ice cream with chocolate sauce and crème brulée. “All was harmony in the kitchen (except that Mrs. Woolf, being a lady, always used up all the saucepans when she tried to cook).” Nellie said Woolf was “always very nice” to her relatives. And “I had to go to hospital and she was very kind. She came to see me in the ward carrying a huge pineapple.