Ha! About time! Somebody has finally done a book about Virginia Woolf and her servants, or perhaps mainly about Nellie (Woolf persistently misspelled it "Nelly") the cook. I probably won't read it but there is a wonderful review in the London Review of Books (Ag 16 2007--link $$), worth it for this gem alone:
On one occasion she threw Virginia out of her room, demanding to be left in privacy, an irony that seems to have been lost on the author of the recently published A Room of One’s Own.
As is often the case with servants, Nellie apparently gave as good as she got. After years of service, the Woolfs kicked her out. The reviewer says:
Thwarted, grieved, and, at the age of 44, suddenly homeless, Nellie is a heartbreaking figure.
But in fact, it wasn't that way at all. Nellie "went to work almost at once for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, one of the most glamorous show-business couples in London." She began a minor-league celebrity as endorser of a line of porcelain gas cookers and got a good enough payoff from the Laughton/Lanchester household at retirement that she was able to buy her own cottage in Surrey.
I weighed in on Virginia and the domestics a couple of years back in an Amazon review (link). Here's what I said:
So here's to Nellie; I hope she enjoyed her gas cooker.
My Boeuf with Virginia: Here is a small point with a larger purpose: Virginia Woolf does not know Boeuf en Daube. Or at any rate, Mrs. Ramsay, the heroine of "To the Lighthouse," does not, and there is no suggestion of any irony in her thought on the topic:
"Everything depended upon things being served up to the precise moment they were ready. ... To keep it waiting was out of the question. Yet of course tonight, of all nights, out they went, and they came in late, and things had to be sent out, things had to be kept hot; the Boeuf en Daube would be entirely spoilt."
Well, if you know anything about the kitchen, you know that this is nonsense. Boeuf en Daube is probably the last thing that needs to be "served up to the precise moment ..." As Elizabeth David says in her "French Provincial Cooking:" "there must be scores of different recipes for daubes in Provence alone... essentially a country housewife's dish." And more to the point, per Ms. David:
"The daube is a useful dish for those who have to get a dinner party when they get home from the office. It can be cooked for 1 hours the previous evening and finished on the night itself. Provided they have not been overcooked to start with, these beef and wine stews are all the better for a second or even third heating up."
I wonder how many English majors from the 1950s sold their souls for a good Boeuf en Daube (did Sylvia Plath have the recipe?) - and how much better off they would have been if they'd seen through it: understood that Mrs. Ramsay did not get the point, because Ms. Woolf did not get the point. Indeed, strictly speaking, the creation is not Mrs. Ramsay's at all, but you'd have to be a sharp-eyed reader to catch on: it is the servant who does the work and delivers the finished product and she, I suspect, knows better than her mistress how flexible and compliant it may be. There is an irony here and it is lost, I suspect, on the mistress and on the mistress' creator.
All of which leads to a larger point: Virginia Woolf does not know servants. Instance in particular her observation of Mrs. McNab, the old char who comes to reopen the summer house after long disuse. We get an elaborate set-piece description of Mrs. McNab, and it is not pretty: indeed, it is mean-spirited and dismissive in almost every way. Mrs. McNab "lurches" and "leers" She "was witless and she knew it;" she sings "like the voice of witlessness." Now, if this is true, it is inexcusably rude: one may want, for some artistic purpose, to show her lurching and leering for, but here it serves no purpose, unless you count its actual function in throwing light on the author. Anyway, the chances are it is not true. My guess is that Mrs. McNab has operated under far more constraint in life than either Ms. Woolf or Mrs. Ramsay ever dreamed of. Witless people do not survive under the iron whim of a Mrs. Ramsay; poor chars who do learn to survive will find that it takes all the skill one can muster.
I could go on, but I need to stay within Amazon's 1,000 word limit. The point is not that "To the Lighthouse" is a bad book. It's actually quite a good book; or at least it is a book full of good paragraphs, and Virginia Woolf seemingly cannot write a bad paragraph. It is as bad novel, because Virginia Woolf has little of the capacity for imaginative empathy that makes a really good novelist. They say that Shakespeare stands as a void at the center of his plays because he has poured every part of his being into his characters. Virginia Woolf takes almost all of her characters into herself. It is well done, but often we get to know more than we really want to know.