Virginia Woolf and Poor Women1

Alison Light 

If my father was a blacksmith and yours was a peer of the realm we must needs be pictures to each other. We cannot possibly break out of the frame of the picture by speaking natural words.
Virginia Woolf, ‘Three Pictures’, June 1929

In an eloquent passage in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote of the ‘infinitely obscure lives’ of women which ‘remained to be recorded’, meaning not only the shabby genteel ‘Mrs Browns’, or the ladies whose often thwarted existences she had already limned in her own ‘Lives of the Obscure’, but working women, poor women.2 Encountering the denizens of the London streets she imagined feeling ‘the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life’

whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.3

These figures, though, were safely removed from her private life. They were ‘the poor’, the eternal poor, the violet sellers and match-sellers, who would have been equally at home in Mayhew or Booth’s surveys, or peopling Shakespeare’s London or Defoe’s as much as the London of the 1930s. They could become figures of romance, like the old woman clutching a brown mongrel, who surfaces in Jacob’s Room and, in similar guise, the female derelict outside Regent’s Park Tube Station in Mrs Dalloway, ‘a rusty pump’, whose song is ‘the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth’, reiterating, ‘love which has lasted a million years’, and rendered by Woolf as pure sound and rhythmic impulse, thus:

ee um fah um so 
foo swee too eem oo

Though her song issues ‘from so rude a mouth, a mere hole in the earth’, it replenishes the city, ‘all along the Marylebone Road , and down toward Euston, fertilising, leaving a damp stain’4 Of the same archetypal species is Mrs McNab (and her friend, Mrs Bast), the charwoman who comes ‘lurching and leering’, in the ‘Time Passes’ section of To the Lighthouse. Singing her tuneless song, Mrs McNab cleans the decaying house of the upper classes, sweeping out the dirt and detritus of the patriarchal past, ushering in the future. Not to inherit it herself, only to stave off destruction and open the doors to her betters. Her song is also wordless, ‘robbed of meaning, like the voice of witlessness, humour, persistency itself, trodden down but springing up again’. Mrs McNab, working against death is mythicised as a care-taking woman but like the exotic tramps of Woolf’s imagination, her presence does little to challenge the reassuring stereotype of the inarticulate lower orders - ‘she was witless, she knew it’.5

Far from dumb, working women were usually represented as blabbermouths, a version of the garrulous female. In her private life Virginia was frequently irritated by her servants’ voices and found their talk invasive, a mere babble – like that of foreigners – too close and intimate, especially at Monk’s House, their cottage in Sussex, where every word, every sound echoed across the uncarpeted oak boards. Furious with Lottie Hope, her parlourmaid, for interrupting her, Woolf quoted her ‘going on’ in her diary, ‘Talk-talk- talk- wonder expressed-loud laughter-agreement’. ‘Talk with them a muscular activity’ she wrote, ‘The difficulty about these people is their flow of language; personal history must be told at length. I believe it is a form of good manners’.6 This was a version of the Victorian adage ‘servants talk about people; gentlefolk discuss things’. The more they talk, in other words, the less they have to say. But Virginia herself was renowned as an incontinent talker, whose conversation took off on flights of fancy, often punctuated by her wild hoots of laughter. These flights made her sister uneasy and Virginia often found herself apologising for talking too much. Yet, like the laughter, they seemed one of her few ways of letting herself go. At her most manic Virginia talked non-stop, pouring out words for days; talking prevented her from eating, from taking anything in. She always feared being thought a ‘ladylike prattler’; that she might write gibberish. Garrulity was associated with the lower orders, like the ‘garrulous’ nurses who had looked after her father, it was insulating, protecting too; a kind of verbal reverie as it is in her children’s story, ‘Nurse Lugton’s Golden Thimble’, but it always risked disparagement as childish and irrational.7

Usually working women were depicted as objects of pathos or comedy. Mrs McNab is not quite a comedy-turn (though she leans towards it), nor is she a victim, like the simple-minded char, Elsie, in Arnold Bennett’s novel, Riceyman Steps, whose overwhelming passion is ‘the desire to serve’ (‘such dishwater’, Woolf wrote, when she read it8); or like Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Life of Ma Parker’, another story of 1922, of an elderly cleaning lady, also a long-suffering victim, who ‘does’ for a selfish literary gentleman. Like them, Mrs MacNab is an idealised maternal presence, but Woolf’s life-force is a modernist one: unstoppable, amoral, thoughtless and directionless. The time-bound, personal histories which make up the book’s minimal sequence of events are put into parentheses (to convey simultaneity but also their irrelevance to the larger scheme of things). 

How to get beyond these ‘pictures’ of the poor as exotic or mythic or pathetic? In the early stages of drafting The Waves, she decided to include lives from across the social spectrum, a group who would be connected by being alive in the same place and time (like the random individuals who watch the sky-writing aeroplane in Mrs Dalloway). This was to be ‘the life of anybody’, concerned not ‘the single life, but with lives together’, and how they differentiated themselves. In a surreal fantasy she imagined a scene of heterogeneous, mindless regeneration, ‘waves succeeding waves; endlessly sinking & falling: waves that were many mothers, & again many mothers, & behind them many more, endlessly sinking & falling, & lying prostrate, each holding up , as the wave pass[ed] its crest, a child’. Her vision of fecundity was tinged also with disgust. The mothers go on spawning ‘little bald naked purplish rolling balls’ of ‘twisting’ babies, ‘little more than animals’ (the word ‘brats’ was deleted), until, in a sinister image, ‘the beach was black with them’. ‘And how discriminate?’, the narrator asks. One answer is apocalyptic: the ‘sad mind’ might feel ‘the strong desire’ to obliterate the ‘whole mass of pullulating life’, these ‘pinkish rings of flesh’, so that ‘whether that was a cottage child, or that a lace-cradled child, it would not matter’. Another, looking on, wants only to leave ‘the feebler’ – ‘field labourers, factory workers, miners’ – to give them their place in the sun. Yet ‘even the most violent & sanguine of partisans’ is fazed by the persistence of nature, which again puts human life in perspective. Hardly a celebration of maternal creativity, the scene conjures a prehistoric, precultural moment, a utopian vision of birth without origins or social markers.9

In her draft Woolf tried to juxtapose ‘Albert’ whose father is a cowman and ‘Roger’ the son of a civil servant. There were also ‘Flora &Dorothy’ who ‘would be going to schools in Switzerland about the same time that ‘Florrie’ (another character) went out for the first time as kitchenmaid’. But their ‘paths branched off as soon as they could take a step in any direction’. Within a few lines the narrator declared that following these diverging lives produced a kind of ‘squint’: the lower class characters would become ‘fragments merely’ rather than ‘rounded & entire’: ‘No single person could follow two lives so opposite; could speak two languages so different’. In one scene she imagined Florrie, lonely and scolded by the cook for kissing ‘the knife-boy’, making herself sick by eating ‘a great lump of greasy white heavenly fat’ stolen from a ham in her employers’ larder. This is Florrie’s dubious compensation for an ‘extraordinarily opulent world’ where ‘gold watches were curled up on dressing tables’. Florrie eats to make herself important in an unequal world but is unable to digest what she had taken in. But like the whistling Irish cook in an early draft of Mrs Dalloway, and others who are pencilled into the drafts of To the Lighthouse, these working-class characters faded out to be replaced by more conventional props. Did Virginia realise how much her characterisation was tinged with revulsion? The slippage always occurs: the steamy ‘sordid eating house’ with its sweaty scullions in The Waves, Florrie’s association with fat and grease, like Florinda’s animality in Jacob’s Room, the flesh of these others is always distasteful as if too much physical appetite turns the stomach. Florrie’s alter-ego in The Waves is ‘Jinny’ (the anorexic to Florrie’s bulimic?). With her streamlined figure and svelte appearance, Jinny represents a fantasy of complete sexual control, ‘I open my body, I shut my body at will’. Florrie, on the other hand - ‘half a savage; but she was all the same very affectionate’ – had to be eliminated from the body of the text.

Virginia’s public sympathy with the lives of poor women was always at odds with private recoil. During the rewriting of The Waves, Virginia was persuaded by Leonard’s old friend, Margaret Llewellyn Davies, to supply an ‘introductory letter’ to a collection of testimonies by women of the Cooperative Women’s Guild, Life As We Have Known It. The women had been asked to write about the conditions of their lives, their poverty, their hopes and fears. Virginia was sceptical about the introduction and thought herself a bad choice. It was written ‘with great plodding’. ‘I have to write about working women all morning’, she told Vanessa, ‘which is as if you had to sew canopies round chamber pots’10  (like a child being deliberately naughty, she could usually rely on her sister to countenance her most offensive statements). Her introduction is impressively honest and uneasy, frankly expressing her ambivalence towards middle class observers like herself, whose sympathy with poor women was bound to be ‘fictitious’, because ‘we pay our bills with cheques and our clothes are washed for us’:

The imagination is largely the child of the flesh. One could not be Mrs 
Giles of Durham because one’s body had never stood at the wash-tub; one’s 
hands had never wrung and scrubbed and chopped up whatever the meat may 
be that makes a miner’s supper.

Yet ‘whatever the meat may be’ seems excessively distancing. Virginia’s own body could stoop and suffer but the idea of a shared physical experience or the vicissitudes of female biology roused resistance. It was not possible to identify with those women because, such sympathy ‘is not based upon sharing the same emotions unconsciously’. It was an ‘aesthetic’ sympathy. It seems an odd thing for a writer to say. In her drafts of The Waves’ she was concurrently imagining the lives of three different men – one homosexual – relying, presumably on aesthetic sympathy.

Instead she emphasised the physical differences between ladies and working women with their muscular bodies and ‘enormous arms’, offending the Guild women. An unhappy correspondence with Margaret followed, which led to revisions, with Virginia insisting that she was only telling the truth: ladies’ arms were flabby because they never lifted anything, but, she wrote, ‘if you want me to make them sylphs I will’11. Irritated by what she saw as working class propriety, she couldn’t see that working women might hate being depicted so much in terms of their bodies or that they understood how much the stress on their physicality implied a kind of mindlessness, as if their lives were only dominated by material needs. Virginia’s own text suggested this. The working women were ‘humorous, vigorous, and thoroughly independent’, she wrote, but

at the same time, it is much better to a be a lady; ladies desire Mozart and Einstein – that is they desire things that are ends, not things that are means.

in other words, ‘not merely money and hot water laid on’. Wanting material things (as if ladies never did), meant an impoverished inner life. Though Virginia toned down her first version and replaced her harsh judgement that ‘It is not from the ranks of working class women that the next great poet or novelist will be drawn’ with ‘Poetry and fiction seem far beyond their horizons’, these were mere tinkerings. The overall drift remained the same. Despite having often felt moved by the womens’ testimonies, with their ‘restless wishing and dreaming’, she needed to keep her distance, to insist that these inner lives were framed differently from her own.

Virginia wrote in her introduction that if ‘every reform’ the Guild women demanded ‘this instant was granted, it would not touch one hair of my comfortable capitalistic head’. Her fierceness was impressive but self-deceived: how could society not change once such women became equal citizens? ‘The question of Nelly’, as Virginia had already suggested, referring to her agonising rows with her cook, Nellie Boxall, was a question of social mobility, and Nellie was far from ‘alone’ – many of the Guild women had been servants.12 In fact the encroachment of the poor, unsettling her own position, provoked her most exorbitant feelings. In the midst of revising her piece in October 1930 she wrote to Ethel Smyth that faced with servants, ‘one sees their poor fluttering lives as one talks’. Their ‘dependence and defencelessness’ left her feeling ‘hopeless, helpless’,

have I ever felt such wild misery as when talking to servants? – partly caused by rage at our general ineptitude – we the governors – at having laden ourselves with such a burden, at having let grow on our shoulders such a cancer, such a growth, such a disease as the poor are.13

The visceral responses, the squeamish, queasy language which compared servants or ‘the poor’ to ‘flies’ or a rubbish heap, the imagery of animality, or of corruption and waste, read like violent attempts to gain control as the writing touched on the ungovernable. ‘Again, enough’, she insisted as she tried to staunch the flow.

Early in 1931 Virginia was too excited by the idea of a new book to finish off the last pages of The Waves. She was imagining a sequel to A Room of One’s Own which would be about ‘the sexual life of women’14 and had its origins in a talk she had just given to the National Society for Women’s Service. In it she tackled head-on the inhibitions which faced a woman of her generation who wanted to write. In an often-cited passage she described how she had had to kill ‘the Angel in the House’, the ‘phantom’ of the Victorian lady who haunted her writing, conciliating a male readership whose sensibilities would otherwise be shocked, and always subordinating her own wishes to those of others (an image, of course of her mother). That obstacle, she wrote, had been overcome. But there remained another, more powerful inhibition: ‘telling the truth about my own experiences as a body’15, which she believed, no woman writer of that time, had so far managed to do. Woolf blamed the male reader for this block but since she also tended to associate physical or bodily experiences with the degraded lower orders, it was clear that the Angel of the House was far from dead.

In the published version of her speech, ‘Professions for Women’, Virginia returned to her earlier conceit: ‘you are earning your five hundred pounds a year...the room is your own but it is still bare’. ‘How are you going to furnish it?’, she asked her imaginary female listener, ‘With whom are you going to share it?’ She did not ask who would clean it. In The Waves the empty rooms which shimmer in the sunlight are miraculously free of dust. The ideal room, like the ideal body, would be free of dirt and waste.

1. What follows is an edited extract from the argument made at length in my Mrs Woolf and the Servants (2007).
2. It was one of many works by women in the period, especially by women historians, which addressed the exclusion of women from conventional accounts of the past. See for example, the medievalist Eileen Power’s bestselling Medieval People (1924), which begins: ‘This book is chiefly concerned with the kitchens of history’. Power was a close friend of Karin Stephen, Woolf’s sister-in-law, and Virginia mentions her in her diaries: Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, 5 vols., Hogarth Press, (1977-84), III, 14 June 1925.
3. A Room of One’s Own (1929), Penguin edition (1992), p.81. All references hereafter are to the Penguin editions of Woolf’s novels.
4. Mrs Dalloway (1925), p.89.
5. To the Lighthouse (1927), p.142
6. Diary, II, 14 February 1922; I, 19 November 1917
7. A mention of a Nurse Lugton suggests she was a real person in the Stephen household: D, V, 12 November 1939
8. Woolf read Bennett’s novel in 1924 (Letters, III, 24 April) as preparation for her speech ‘Character in Fiction’ given in Cambridge that May; this in turn led to a revision of her essay, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, published by the Hogarth Press in October where the image of the Georgian cook is introduced and relations between ‘masters and servants’ are taken as key indicators of social change.
9. See The Waves: The Two Holograph Drafts, ed. J.W. Graham, Hogarth Press (1976) for the evolution of the text.
10. Letters of Virginia Woolf, IV, eds., Nicolson and Trautmann, 6 vols., (Hogarth Press 1975-80), 7 June 1930
11. Letters, IV, 10 October 1930 where an editorial footnote confuses VW’s reference to ‘the size of the Guilders’ with the size of the membership.
12. Diary, III, April 13 1929. Nellie Boxall spelt her name thus; Virginia wrote ‘Nelly’.
13. Letters, IV, 16 October 1930
14. Diary, IV, 20 January 1931
15. ‘Professions for Women’, reprinted in The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, ed. R.Bowlby (1993), p.102.