Posts Tagged ‘Alison Light’

Did Virginia Woolf care about food? That question has generated quite a bit of discussion on the VWoolf Listserv. The general consensus? Yes, she did.

A letter published in the Times Literary Supplement on Jan. 13 prompted the discussion. In it, the writer responds to a review of English Food: A Social History of England Told Through the Food on Its Tables (2022) by Diane Diane Purkiss, and he proposes that Woolf did not give food much thought.

The author of the letter, Martin Dodsworth of Brill, Buckinghamshire, writes: “it is noticeable that in writing of Nelly Boxall, her own cook, Woolf hardly ever in her diaries mentions what comes to table. It’s probable that she wasn’t very interested.”

Comments from the VWoolf Listserv

Participants in the Woolf listserv beg to differ. Vociferously. Here are some of the points mentioned by participants on the list, all of whom dispute the view of Woolf as disinterested in food, a view they see as part of the popular myth that she was “frail and ethereal”:

  • The Woolf quote in A Room of One’s Own: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
  • When the Woolfs visited southwest France (now “Nouvelle Aquitaine”) in the 1930s, Virginia argued with Leonard about the quality of the food. – from Marie-Claire Boisset-Pestourie
  • In the 1930s,  Woolf dined at Marcel Boulestin’s famous restaurant in Covent Garden, enjoying such dishes as his sole with mushroom sauce so much that she sent her cook, Mabel Haskins, to him to take lessons. Mabel thoroughly enjoyed the lessons and Woolf was pleased to be reaping the benefits. – from Stephen Barkway
  • My paper at the 2010 conference, published in the selected works from that year, was “A Certain Hold on Haddock and Sausage: Dining Well in Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work.” From numerous passages in her letters and diaries as well as her novels, there is little doubt she relished & appreciated good food. Traveling in France with Vita, she describes the food in several letters to Leonard as well as in her diary. Read about: “the vastest most delicious meal I have ever eaten…” (L3 534) and “a first rate dinner thought out and presided over by a graceful young chef…” (D4 317). – from Alice Lowe

Virginia Woolf, food, and Nellie Boxall

In Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service (2007), Alison Light notes that Nellie Boxall lived with the Woolfs for 18 years, and for 10 of these, Nellie was the Woolfs’ sole live-in servant who became a “first-class” cook (174).

Light explains that as the Woolfs’ income grew in the 1920s, they “began to take holidays abroad and became more sophisticated in their culinary tastes” and Virginia sent Nellie for lessons with Marcel Boulestin, the celebrity chef who opened Restaurant Français in Leicester Square in 1925 (174).

Virginia herself was known for having mastered the art of cooking omelettes, for which Boulestin was renowned, according to Light. And interestingly enough, one of the Woolfs’ first improvements to Monk’s House was a new self-setting range (175).

Light shares a 1956 BBC interview with Nellie: “Nellie had soon coaxed Mrs. Woolf’s poor appetite with treats and fresh puddings like hmemade ice cream with chocolate sauce and crème brûlée . . . ‘She’ always liked Nellie’s cooking ” and brought Nellie a “huge” fresh pineapple when Nellie was in hospital (221).

More on Woolf and food

I did a quick Google search on my own and came up with a few links that add more nails to the coffin of Mr. Dodsworth’s weak argument:

Next morning they would go over the dishes – the soup, the salmon; the salmon, Mrs Walker knew, as usual underdone, for she always got nervous about the pudding and left it to Jenny; so it happened, the salmon was always underdone (Mrs. Dalloway 165).


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Bloomsbury BallerinaAlison Light has written a charming and lively review of  Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova, Imperial Dancer and Mrs. John Maynard Keynes for the London Review of Books.

The biography of the lucky Russian ballerina who swept John Maynard Keynes off his feet and raised the hackles of other Bloomsburies, was written by Judith Mackrell, dance critic for the Guardian.

Lopokova was a protege supported by the tsar at the age of nine and a member of the Ballets Russes when she danced her way to London in 1918 and into Keynes’s heart.

You can read “Lady Talky,” Light’s review, here.

Read more about Mackrell’s biography of Lopokova on Blogging Woolf.

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mrs-woof-and-servants-american-editionMrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light is listed in the Washington Post’s “Best Books of 2008.”

The book, which was released in the U.S. earlier this year, explores Virginia Woolf’s relationships with her domestic help. It is among 10 non-fiction hits recognized by the Post.

The list puts Woolf in good company. Other non-fiction books included on the list cover Emily Dickinson, Joseph Cornad, Keats and Chagall.

Read more about Light’s book on Blogging Woolf.

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Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, the book by Alison Light that explores Virginia’s relationships with her hired help, is finally out in the States.

You can read Michael Dirda’s review of the American edition in The Washington Post, a review in The Nation, The Economist or The New York Times. Read an interview with Light in the Boston Globe.

Or travel back in time and read more about the British edition that came out a year ago. Read a posting on the Hesperus Press blog. Click on The Independent’s review of the book. Get the skinny from the Sunday Times online. Or connect with Susan Goldman’s perspective, as published in her online literary magazine, textualities.

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Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison LightTwo books that feature Virginia Woolf are in the running for for this year’s Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, according to the Guardian.

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light’s account of Woolf’s relationships with her live-in staff, is one.  In it, Light explores the ’sordid’ power struggle between Virginia Woolf and her live-in cook, Nellie.

Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad, a history covering the way women were treated for mental issues, is the other.

Both books are included among 20 books on the longlist.

The shortlist of five books will be announced May 15, with the £30,000 prize to the top book awarded at a July 15 ceremony in London.

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