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.
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