A room of one’s own — and someone to clean it.

Michael Dirda on Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light in The Washington Post:

Woolf_4 This fine book — superbly researched, often passionately eloquent, and enthralling throughout — gives the lie to a notorious catchphrase: “As for living: Our servants will do that for us.” That line — taken from Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s symbolist drama “Axel” — aptly encapsulates the weary languor of an etiolated aristocracy. But it also points up the huge psychological divide between the ruling classes and their domestic help, which was largely female. While the palely blue-blooded of 100 years ago might have found it comforting, or frightening, to imagine that their servants pulsed with red-hot animal vitality and energy, their actual cooks, chars and maids-of-all-work were generally too exhausted after 80- or 100-hour weeks to think about anything much but a warm bed and sleep. A chilling fact says it all: At the beginning of the 20th century, “the average life-expectancy for a woman was forty-six.” And, as Alison Light points out, “domestic service was still the largest single female occupation. It remained so until at least 1945.”

While Mrs. Woolf and the Servants focuses primarily on the interactions between Virginia Stephen, later Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), and the women who cleaned, cooked and cared for her over the course of her 59 years (too few, too few), it also probes the complex nature of dependence and care-giving. “What is entrusted to the servant,” Light suggests, “is something of one’s self. . . . Servants were the body’s keepers, protecting its entrances and exits; they were privy to its secrets and its chambers; they knew that their masters and mistresses sweated, leaked and bled; they knew who could pregnate and who could not get pregnant; they handled the lying-in and the laying-out. Servants have always known that the emperor has no clothes. No wonder they were dubbed the scum of the earth and its salt, as they handled the food and the chamber-pots, returning dust to dust.”

More here.