Wednesday, February 4, 2009



Though certain servants in our raj
leave many traces of the past,
a few may loom in our imag-
ination larger than the cast
whose roles seem far more prominent
than those of any faithful servant
to whom we have been dominant.
The greatest, butler, barman, booster,
surely is the servant Jeeves,
always saving Bertie Wooster
from the tangled webs he weaves,
but there are lots of low and lesser
characters called servants whom
we cherish more than a professor,
though most lie buried in a tomb,
because our help now is provided
by those whom we can’t understand,
misunderstood, poor and derided,
strangers from a foreign land
whose language and whose customs we
don’t know. Our ruling role unravels
when we find out they wish to be
in Mecca, where their spirit travels,
for mentally, although they serve
our purpose, they go on a haj,
and we lose what we don’t deserve,
the right to rule them in our raj!
With them relationships unequal
may some day become equalized:
to Jeeves and Wooster there’s a sequel
that may leave all of us surprised,
as Pharaoh and Egyptians were
when servants turned to God to plague
their rulers who could not refer
the plagues to judges in The Hague.

Inspired Mona Simpson’s review of Alison Light’s Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, describing the unequal relationship between Virginia Woolf and her servant, Nellie Boxall (“Imperfect Union,” Mona Simpson, Atlantic, February, 2009):

Like most intense relationships, Woolf’s with Nellie mingled anger and kindness, forgiveness and grievance. The Woolfs “lent” Nellie to Vanessa. When Nellie made jam from seven pounds of hand-picked blackberries (a reversal from her former refusal to make marmalade), Woolf took it as “her way of thanking me for having Lottie—after all, she has no other. And one tends to forget it.” In her diary, Woolf described Nellie as “almost insufferably mean, selfish & spiteful … a human mind wriggling undressed.” But as a postscript to a letter to Leonard, she scrawled, “Love to Nelly.” She named a kitten Boxall after Nellie—“to ingratiate her.” Most of the complaints on Nellie’s part seemed to be about having too much work. She angled for another helper. On Virginia’s side of their eternal fight was an avalanche of hurt feelings. What is this, if not the story of a durable bond between people who form an imperfect fit? Or is it the story of the ways one woman uses another, because she can? The distinction plagues Light and generates the conflicted momentum of her book. The Woolfs obsess about “the question of Nelly.” Light endlessly worries the problem of Virginia Woolf, who left behind beautiful work but required a servant’s help to stay sane enough to do that work. Light’s attempt to understand the contagious sense of shame surrounding service drives her emphasis on sloppers, chamber pots, and the work involved in cleaning up human excrement before the installation of modern plumbing. According to Light, Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, considered American plumbing extravagant and mildly corrupting (one wonders whom he thought would be corrupted! The servants?) and preferred to hire a slopper to empty chamber pots into the water closet and clean the basins. This resistance to modern plumbing turned out to be inherited. Shortly before the Woolfs’ marriage, after weighing the options, Virginia decided to use earth-closets at their country house—which would be cleaned out by an elderly worker—rather than install a drain for a WC.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 2/3/09


  1. I don't miss the old days at all, and especially the fact that I missed out on chamber pots. If that makes me corrupt- well so be it. Viva hot
    water and long baths!

  2. those where they days of servants and such...wouldn't go back to them...she (Woolf)was a very difficult writer to understand wasn't she and possibly an even more difficult person to live with ..