Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service by Alison Light - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

Upstairs, Downstairs

Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service


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For the children of Leslie Stephen, growing up in the late nineteenth century in their large house in Hyde Park Gate, servants were inevitable cogs in the complex social and practical machinery of the upper-middle-class home. Lighting fires, producing meals, cleaning and polishing, their work was for the most part as intensive and back-breaking as it had been for their predecessors. Leslie Stephen considered installing new-fangled running hot water – but decided that having servants heat it and then laboriously carry it upstairs was the cheaper course. Yet by the standards of their age, the Stephens were enlightened employers. Julia Stephen was one of the ‘slummers’, that band of women who devoted much time to visiting and helping fallen women or the poor and other philanthropic projects. They were fond enough of their servants to take photographs of them. But while her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the young Mrs Stephen in the pose of a heavy-lidded Madonna, the model of the Victorian ideal of ethereal womanhood, a photograph of their cook Sophie Farrell, with her stout, aproned frame and thick labourer’s forearms, portrayed her as the ideal cook (if there were such a thing), her destiny to be nothing else.

When the elder Stephens died, Sophie came with Virginia and her siblings as they made their first foray into Bloomsbury. They found a house in Gordon Square. ‘Sophie approves of it in every particular’, wrote Virginia. There, they resolved that all would be different, that fresh air would blow through

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