Last month, the Nation had a summary by Elaine Blair of Alison Light’s fascinating “Mrs Woolf and The Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life In Bloomsbury.”
The history of the servants of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell in their Bloomsbury residences in Edwardian times and the period between the Wars allows us a close look at the last generation or two of domestic service to the middle class.
Light describes former domestic servants in the 1950s and ’60s looking back on their old lives as if from a hangover. Social changes had come so quickly and definitively that the culture of service and subservience they had taken for granted as young women seemed impossibly antiquated: “When they looked back in old age the girls who had gone into service were often mystified, sometimes furious or appalled, that they had emptied those earth-closets, scrubbed the stone flags, washed their employers’ clothes” …
The idea of doing arduous, messy work that rich or middle-class people considered beneath them came to seem “anachronistic and demeaning,” Light writes, to working-class women who “increasingly had other options: clerical, shop or factory work, work as a waitress or a chambermaid, receptionist, florist, beautician, anything that gave them their evenings or weekends off, the freedom to meet friends, or simply to stay at home.”
The availability of choice was often combined with a distaste for the arrogance of class that still permeated the master-servant relationship even in households that occasionally broke social barriers.
Woolf’s diaries and letters are sprinkled with careless snobbish comments about servants, and her and Vanessa’s dislike of having servants shades easily into disdain for the servants themselves. They make everything “pompous and heavy-footed,” Virginia writes to her sister, who in another letter complains that her “brains are becoming soft…by constant contact with the lower classes” during a vacation when her family and their servants were living in close quarters.
And then there was the question of money.
Though Woolf and her sister had moderate leftist leanings–later in life, under the influence of her husband, Woolf would become active in the newly formed Labour Party–their political beliefs did not translate into a desire to improve the economic situation of their servants. The Woolfs paid their help the meager wages typical of the era, a shockingly small proportion of their income: according to Light, they gave their servants £40 a year when they earned £4,000.
I look forward to reading the book which covers the cusp between one cultural norm and its successor. Final thought: when the middle class were obliged to give up their domestic servants, the gap between the rich (who could still afford a full personal services staff) and everyone else grew much wider than it had been before.
I was drawn to the World Health Organization’s recently published “The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update” through David Kenner’s review article in Foreign Policy. The WHO’s report is a snapshot of the world’s health as of 2004. From that, “using projections of economic growth and advances in medical treatment”, they extrapolate the leading causes of death in 2030.
It is interesting to me that the three causes expected to kill more people (heart disease, lung disease and traffic accidents) are each deaths by consumer choice in the use of fatty foods, tobacco, and automobiles.
I was surprised to see that tobacco consumption is expected to rise. But then again, it is reasonable that developing nations should buckle under the full weight of tobacco advertising just as we did. It is a pity that they can’t seem to skip that bit of our experience. But Big Tobacco can make the stuff for as little as it needs to keep the wholesale price low, and governments quickly become addicted to the tobacco sales taxes they collect. The guy on the street hardly stands a chance.
A final thought: when you add up the cost of the world’s military, the tobacco and road transportation industries, and the unhealthy parts of agribusiness, it quickly becomes apparent that modern capitalism is in large part an economy of death. I’m certain that is something we could change if we really wanted to.
Break out the kegs! Today is the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition in the US.
Of course, turned away from alcohol as a target, the censorious citizenry then turned their blue lights on drugs and homosexuality. There is always something someone will want to ban. Perhaps that is the sign of a degenerate “civilization.” Or maybe it is just boredom that drives some people to interfere in the private lives of others. Either way it is a sad business.