1 August 2019 Susannah

Books About Servants

I have recently greatly enjoyed Mrs Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light, a book about Virginia Woolf’s fascinating relationship with the women who cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed for her. Domestic service was a huge employer of women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the life of a maid, or cook, or general servant was not an easy one.

The photo above, taken in 1899, shows Sophia Farrell, shown standing on the right, who worked for Virginia Woolf from 1882 to 1941.

The author provides a lot of well-researched factual information about servants of the era, but has also delved into the lives and origins of the women employed by Virginia’s family and then by herself and her husband. In spite of her ‘liberal’ ideas, her employees didn’t always have an easy time of it. I can recommend the book.

Other excellent books about servants which I can recommend include Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster, a novel about the life of poor Wilson who was employed in the 1840s by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, went with her to Italy when Elizabeth married Robert Browning and stayed on to bring up their son. Wilson married a fellow servant in Italy and had her own son, but was forced to send her child back to England to be cared for by her sister, while she focussed her time and energy on the Brownings’ boy instead. When Wilson asked for a pay rise, Elizabeth was furious with her, yet she expected Wilson to spend her own holidays looking after Elizabeth’s child. The book is an intriguing alternative view of a great literary figure and a glimpse into the life of a Victorian servant.

Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring is another good novel about a servant, and I also enjoyed Longbourn by Jo Baker, a 2013 novel about a servant in the home of the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice. When Elizabeth Bennet gets her stockings “six inches deep in mud” on a walk to Netherfield, someone has to clean those stockings! I felt the book ended rather poorly, but it was a good read.

Do you have any favourite books (fiction or non-fiction) about servants? Do let me know if you do in a comment below.

I only recommend books I have read and know. Some of these links are my affiliate links. If you buy a book by clicking on one of these links I receive a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but does help cover the cost of producing my free newsletter.

 

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Featured image credit- Sophia Farrell and maids, 1899. This work is out of copyright, with photographic rights held by the Bridgeman Art Library. https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/xjf391585eng/sophia-farrell-and-maids-1899-xjf391585-eng/
Body image credit- Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3959654-mrs-woolf-and-the-servants
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Comments (5)

  1. Kelly

    I really enjoyed the biography “Tea by the nursery fire: a children’s nanny at the turn of the century” by Noel Streatfeild, author of “Ballet shoes” which incidentally I also loved!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I love Ballet Shoes too, but had no idea that Noel Streatfeild had written a biography too. Many thanks for letting me know.

  2. Anil Srivastava

    The Remains of the Day by Kazio Ishiguro is an insightful book about the life of servants in a British household, whicb belonged to Lord Darlington,a British aristocrat. The protagonist is the butler Stevens, who reminisces about his life in the service of his former master, Lord Darlington; his unexpressed feelings for a former housekeeper,Miss Kenton; the years leading to World War II, during which Lord Darlington hosted lavish meetings between German sympathizers and English aristocrats in an effort to influence international affairs; and thinks about the future and his remaining days, under his new master Mr. Farraday, an American. Stevens also muses over lost opportunities, both with Miss Kenton and his decades of service to Lord Darlington, who may not have been worthy of his fealty. At the end of the novel, Stevens instead focuses on the titular “remains of the day”, referring to his future service with Mr. Farraday and what is left of his own life.

  3. Melody

    A friend gave me Longbourn a couple of years ago. I agree with you that the narrative didn’t really hold up very well, but I did enjoy the view of Pride and Prejudice from the underside, so to speak. I’ll add the Woolf one to my TBR pile…

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It was such a good idea, wasn’t it, but it just faded badly towards the end. Like you, I enjoyed seeing thing from the point of view of a servant.

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