Imperfect Union

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

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).

Light’s attempt to understand the contagious sense of shame surrounding service drives her emphasis on sloppers, chamber pots, and the work involved in cleaning up human excrement before the installation of modern plumbing. According to Light, Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, considered American plumbing extravagant and mildly corrupting (one wonders whom he thought would be corrupted! The servants?) and preferred to hire a slopper to empty chamber pots into the water closet and clean the basins. This resistance to modern plumbing turned out to be inherited. Shortly before the Woolfs’ marriage, after weighing the options, Virginia decided to use earth-closets at their country house—which would be cleaned out by an elderly worker—rather than install a drain for a WC.

This must have been exceedingly frustrating for the servants, to whom the Stephens and the Woolfs seemed rich. Why wouldn’t these people pay for the new, sanitary plumbing? But the Woolfs weren’t rich during most of the time Nellie worked for them. Their refusals to hire the helper she wanted no doubt had to do with money. (The persistent problem of the artistic upper-middle class: rich in their servants’ eyes, they are nonetheless stretching to make ends meet.)

In 1930, when Nellie got sick, Woolf brought her to the hospital and, as Light relates, “what with doctors, planning and cooking dinner,” she lost two weeks of writing. (Leonard’s work went on uninterrupted.) When Nellie came home, she was met with a letter of dismissal claiming that relations between the two women had changed since “the famous scene last November” (when Nellie asserted the idea that, in Woolf’s house, she had a room of her own—by demanding Woolf leave it). Woolf recorded parts of their hours-long talk in her diary.

Still I can’t understand why you won’t have me back …

But Nelly, you gave me notice 10 times in the past 6 years—& more …

But I always took it back.

Yes, but that sort of thing gets on the nerves.

Oh ma’am I never meant to tire you—don’t go on talking now if it tires you—but you wouldn’t give me any help. Now Grace has all the help she wants—Well, I says, this is long service.

But then Nelly you forgot that when you were with us.

But then for 3 years I’ve been ill. And I shall never like any mistress as much as I like you.

Nellie would continue working for the Woolfs for another three years. One might wonder if the main reason she stayed really was, as she said, a liking for her mistress. In fact, by the standards of her time, Nellie’s job was a good one, as Light observes. She wore no uniform. (In Clive Bell’s home, the maids served dinner in black alpaca frocks and white caps and aprons well into the 1930s.) Nellie called Virginia “Mrs. Woolf,” not “Ma’am.” No members of the household bothered to dress for dinner, and the meal was not “served.” No table linens had to be ironed. Once, Nellie and her mistress even worked together to empty the tubs when the pipes froze.

Finally, in 1934, after yet another “great Nelly row,” Woolf decided it really was time to fire the servant. She was so distressed by her decision that she had to stop working on her novel. Then, after “the most disagreeable six weeks of my life,” she did it, feeling “executioner & the executed in one.” In one of the last glimpses we have of Nellie in the diary, she is standing “by the drawing-room door in the full light, white & pink, with her funny rather foolish mulish face.”

She would not accept a check from Virginia, saying, “But you don’t owe me anything.”

The last sentence Virginia ever wrote about Nellie appeared in her diary a few months later. “After eighteen years I at last got rid of an affectionate domestic tyrant.” She makes no further reference to Nellie (or “Nelly,” as Woolf misspelled her name—for almost two decades) in her diary or letters. After their 18 years of living together, that silence, more than any of the flashes of hatred, shocks.

But Nellie thrived. She found a job with Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, then Britain’s best-known stage couple, just returned from Hollywood. The movie stars were significantly richer than the literary Woolfs, and Happy Powley, the maid who worked alongside Nellie there, remembered “Dietrich bringing out the dirty plates to a cupboard on the landing.”

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.

“I was sorry to leave, but I wasn’t out of a job for long,” Nellie said.

Woolf’s most productive years, Light observes, coincided with the years when Nellie Boxall was the writer’s “liver in”: She wrote her great novels—Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves. She published myriad reviews and essays, including A Room of One’s Own and the literary criticism that she collected in The Common Reader. “She became wealthy for the first time in her life; she began her love affair with Sackville-West; her marriage to Leonard still delighted and invigorated her,” Light avers.

The idea of independence was central to this life But these were also years when … it was Nellie who drew the curtains, brought the lemonade and the trays, who tempted Virginia’s appetite with invalid foods, and presumably emptied the chamber-pot which continued to reside under the bed.

Light’s original ambition—to discover the inner lives of women like her grandmother—was destined to fail, because the Nellies of the world, including her immigrant descendants in America, don’t write memoirs. They’re too busy working their way out of poverty into the middle class. Their children and grandchildren—like Light, like most of us—will, because of our gratitude and guilt, forever want to know how they felt. The best window yet is fiction—think of Stendhal’s Julien Sorel’s resentment of and infatuation for his betters, think of Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, think of the German tutor in War and Peace who records every dish of the banquet to describe in his letter home.

Although writing about characters of another class is exceedingly hard (as difficult as crossing boundaries of gender and race), that doesn’t explain why Woolf didn’t write a book about servants—when the subject forms a leitmotif in her journals and letters. A clue may be found in one instance when she did manage to write about Nellie outside her diaries and letters.

In a famous passage Light cites, Woolf flatly asserted, “On or about December, 1910, human character changed.” The change could be observed, she argued, “in the character of one’s cook … The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths,” but the “Georgian cook” was “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.”

One can imagine the pleasure Woolf took in writing those lines (she once described the diversions she forfeited for her writing: “I’ve shirked two parties, and another Frenchman, and buying a hat”), and no doubt scenes like the one above in the drawing room did transpire between the two women; yet the happy frivolity of exchanging millinery opinions hardly characterizes Nellie’s true position in the Woolf house. Nellie was an employee, taking orders and emptying chamber pots. Part of the difficulty of the job must have been the emotional component that required her to act the part of an equal—a daughter or a friend—while bringing Woolf food on a tray and washing her chemises.

Perhaps Woolf encountered a blind spot writing about the servants because she was too invested in believing a version of her own life, in which the household rhythm and taste and temper she required was best not only for her and for the work she hoped would become literature, but also for the person who made that rhythm and temper (and those great meals). What Nellie gave Woolf, what Vera (who typed her husband’s manuscripts and sat in on his Cornell lectures, in addition to doing most of what Nellie did) gave Nabokov, what numberless wives have given great men and what artist’s colonies have given artists since the turn of the 19th century is routine maternal care. That elixir allows artists—famously prone to “nerves”—to work. But unlike Nabokov and the young composer who is a guest at Yaddo, Woolf had to pay Nellie. And therein lies the problem. That seemed to her a little bit sordid. None of us wants to pay for love.

Orwell, observing the coal miners, presented a picture very different from that of Woolf working alongside Nellie or the char. Orwell’s relation to coal production remained abstract, whereas Woolf would see her own dinner cooked, her underwear scrubbed, and her chamber pot from the night before emptied and washed. Domestic work has always put the people doing the work and the ones benefiting from it in a deeply intimate and unequal relationship. Woolf needed to hire a woman in order to write. None of us, least of all a woman given to inward examination, wishes to think that the emotional conditions necessary for her to do the work she loves involve some form of oppression. These messy feelings of guilt and dependence may have been Woolf’s obstacle in depicting Nellie. Light’s book proves one thing that could not have been the problem: it wasn’t that Woolf didn’t love her enough.

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