The Upstairs/Downstairs Drama Around Mrs. Dalloway

Alexis Coe marvels at the tumultuous relationship Virginia Woolf had with her servant of 18 years, Nellie Boxall:

Boxall was hired as the Woolf’s live-in servant at 52 Tavistrock Square, where the writer would draft Mrs Dalloway and launch Hogarth Press. All the while, Nellie was hard at work in the background, pumping the water, lighting the lamps, making the beds, and emptying the chamber pots — more than her title of “cook” suggests, though she did that as well, serving multiple courses three times a day.

Few scholars have parsed Woolf’s diaries without commenting on her frequent, detailed, and often vitriolic accounts of Boxall. Their brand of melee was firmly mired in a cycle, each arguing her points with the tools available to them. Boxall howled and cried, and then threatened to leave, which she would not, but the threat greatly destabilized and embarrassed Woolf. For her part, Woolf recognized, if not predicted, the attraction, writing, “If I were reading this dairy…I should seize with greed upon the portrait of Nelly & make a story — perhaps make the whole story revolve around that.”

More details of their toxic dynamic:

Boxall certainly facilitated optimal writing conditions at times, and greatly hindered them at others. Her complaints were not unfathomable, given her substantial work load. Swollen ankles and a bad back might have been tolerated in relative silence if, she seemed to tell Woolf, her efforts were appreciated. “Nellie Boxall was one of the majority throughout history who had made their presence felt through surliness or tears, downright disobedience, petty acts of revenge (like spitting up on soup) or vicious talk,” wrote [Alison Light, author of Mrs. Woolf and Servants]. Nellie communicated her grievances through dramatic scenes, which Woolf found distracting and “degrading,” but nonetheless chose to obsess over them for nearly two decades.

Woolf recounted and appraised “the famous scene” at Tavistock Square in London over and over again in her diary. After a particularly bad argument, Boxall ordered Woolf out of her room, one she inhabited but technically belonged to her masters. “In her closest relationships — with Vanessa, Leonard, Nellie, Vita, and Ethel — Virginia knew she wanted mothering and protection but she also distrusted ‘the maternal passion,’” explained Light. This was not weak moment for Woolf, and she did not need to be reminded of instances in which Boxall had played the stern but kind parental figure. She could not decide if Boxall, by ordering her out of the room, had treated her like a child or a servant; in the end, it did not matter, for Woolf was resolute. This time, Boxall would go. She spent the following weeks rapt with expectation, engrossed in preparation for any possible scenario. She copied out and practiced reading aloud various replies to what she expected Boxall to say. “I am sick of the timid spiteful servant mind,” wrote Woolf, the very same woman who had railed against men’s use of ‘the female mind.’”