Monday, August 5, 2013

Checking Out the Below-Stairs Crowd

You may have read Virginia Woolf, the feminist writer famous for her essay, “A Room of One’s Own.”  According to Wikipedia, Woolf “invented a fictional character, Judith, ‘Shakespeare’s sister,’ to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that would have been closed to women.” 

Woolf was born into the British upper classes, all of whom employed a fleet of servants to clean out their fireplaces, run their baths, empty their chamber pots and, of course, cook breakfast, lunch and dinner.  For Woolf, they also made handy characters in her books, not that Woolf portrayed them with lives, families or memories outside of their duties.  

Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants seeks to remedy this oversight.  Light’s grandmother “went into service” as a young girl and expressed nothing but resentment for the experience. But that’s what England expected of its working class girls, especially its orphans. 
Light decided to honor her grandmother by fleshing out Woolf’s servants, hunting down where they came from, how they spent their off-hours (when they got any), how they got passed around among Woolf’s friends and family.  I found the story of Lottie particularly engaging.  

Sometimes Light’s history bogs down with a parade of unfamiliar names.  She assumes readers know Woolf’s writings, as well as how she committed suicide.   But what Light wants to tell us about Woolf is that, for all her ideals about women having some education and leisure to create art, it never occurred to her that the women dusting in the parlor below would get neither.  And she couldn’t do without the women in the parlor below. 

Not many pages into the book, I had flashbacks of my mother and my Young Women teachers praising homemaking’s advantages.  “You can set your own hours.  You’re working for yourself.”     I thought I was hearing, Your husband has to put up with annoying office mates and crushing deadlines.  Aren’t you glad that your days will be far more blissful?   But when you’re sweeping the floor you swept last week as well as the week before, and other people are inventing Hubble telescopes and waffle fries, don’t you think, Nice sell job, Mother/MIA Maid teacher?  

Ah, but in my day, I don’t think she was comparing homemaking to working at the factory or the office.  Light’s book makes me think she was comparing sweeping one’s own floors to scrubbing the mistress’s front hall.  After all, my own mom worked a couple domestic-help gigs in her college years, not to mention getting sent off to help an aunt or two after the arrival of a new baby. That Mom would prefer keeping her own house over keeping someone else's is not hard to guess.   

Light says we’ve gotten more democratized.   If you can afford household help, it sure isn’t the below-stairs live-in staff.  More likely, it’s the Merry Maids who swoop in once a week with their cleaning caddies.  

As for myself, the kitchen floor and the bathroom grout await my attention.  And if I expect Lemon Chicken Tacos  to show up on the dinner table, I’d better be cutting up those chicken cubes myself. 

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