Monday, January 26, 2009

Virginia Woolf's Kitchen

I just read the book Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: an Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light. It's a very subtle, scholarly, and complex study of Virginia Woolf's relationships with the servants who took care of her and tended her household throughout her life. It's also a remarkable history of the drastic change in domestic life in England during her lifetime. I can hardly do it justice by extracting a few of the raw facts that come from it, but that's what I propose to do.

What was a kitchen like during Virginia Woolf's childhood? First of all, upper class people like her family never went down into the uncomfortable basements where the kitchens were located -- all cooking and cleaning was done by servants. A cold water tap from a tank may have been available, but water usually was carried in (especially in country homes). Municipal water supplies were far in the future.

On a wood or coal-fired stove, with no heat control, water was heated for cooking, dishwashing, cleaning, and bathing. Cleanliness was a problem, and washing up, cleaning surfaces, pots, floors, and stoves were an immense task. Sand was used for scrubbing out pots and working on grease. Detergent was not invented yet either. Refrigeration wasn't much available either, so servants frequently had to go out to buy fresh food such as milk, cream, and meat.

As Virginia Woolf matured, social change combined with technology to change kitchen life. Workers from lower classes could find other jobs, and thus became less willing to do all the hard labor. In 1926, the Woolfs installed a "self-setting range with cast iron sides & back" and a "hot-water boiler and tank." (p. 175) Eventually she obtained a fridge -- which depended on electricty, not necessarily a given.

Some history:
"Even by 1945, only 20 per cent of British homes had an electric cooker 15 per cent had a water-heater, 4 per cent a washing machine, and a mere 2 percent a fridge. ... some might have a fitted cabinet with a fold-down flap, but most kitchens still had a table in the centre and a dusty dresser for the crocks. Equipment mostly dated back to the last century. There might be aluminium pans rather than those heavy iron or copper ones, and a sink that whas white enamel rather than cement, with a few white tiles for a splashback if you were lucky." (p. 181-182)

Virginia Woolf was very dependent in her earlier life for servants to cook for her and even coax her to eat. (This had to do with her mental problems, which included various eating disorders, treated at length in the book.) My usual approach would be to ask What did Virginia Woolf eat? or What did she cook? The book also answers them in fascinating ways. As her life went on, she seemed to question her relationship with servants, and she became more interested in learning to cook, which was also a very interesting thing:
"Over the years she graduated to making soups, pies and roasts, rice pudding, curry; sometimes she'd rustle up a scratch supper -- 'macaroni cheese and bacon fry' -- baked haddock was a favourite standby." (p. 233)
The author does a fascinating job of connecting the domestic life depicted in Virginia Woolf's diaries, her letters, and many more general sources with the content of her works and with her approach to writing. It also creates a wonderful account of her relationship with a wide variety of people in her life -- including the often ignored servants, who receive individual biographical sketches. If this fascinates you as it does me, I recommend the book most strongly.


~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,
What a fabulous post. I had planned on posting about Virginia Woolf as yesterday (25th) was the anniversary of her birth. I'm going to grab this post to add to my google calendar and save it for future use.

You've done an admirable job! It's all so fascinating!

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,
It's me again:) There's an award for you over at my place. Here's the link. Enjoy!

Mae Travels said...

Thanks Louise. I appreciate your encouragement!

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