A Servant of One’s Own: On Virginia Woolf, Domestics, and Downton Abbey

March 15, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 8 8 min read


The complicated upstairs-downstairs dynamic on PBS’s Downton Abbey is arguably the reason viewers keep coming back for more — even after the Grantham-Crawley melodrama has become almost too much to bear. They long for that moment of recognition to arrive, when the unobtrusive servant, usually so well-hidden in the basement or attic, is caught in the act of, well, service. They are hurriedly straightening up the library while the family takes luncheon elsewhere, but plans have changed and now the silent majority, the laboring poor trained in the art of self-effacement, must engage in a highly charged, awkward, and reverent dance called “conversation with your master.”

If Downton is to be taken at its word, this is not a purely financial arrangement. British servants regard their masters as major celebrities; a few garner mockery and disdain, but they are unlikely to ever learn of this reputation. Most are held in great esteem, their smallest gesture of kindness dissected and debated for weeks on end. Despite the occasional seemingly altruistic gesture — access to a marriage-bed for the night or use of a fashionable lawyer for a wrongly accused murderer — the Granthams and Crawleys, however desperate to cast their gaze on anything out of the ordinary, do not seem to fret about their help in the same way. In the end, any violation of social distance proves to be a minor annoyance forgotten as soon as the erring servant’s back rights the situation, either up against the wall or seen from the back, scurrying down the hall.

At least, that is the case for the inhabitants of Downton, a grand house that is within itself a dying breed, but the 18 years Nellie Boxall served as cook to Virginia Woolf, however, were a far more fraught affair than the coupling of Lady Mary Grantham and Matthew Crawley ever was, full of emotional blackmail and power struggles. Boxall and Woolf had staged battle royals that left both parties smarting.

coverThe Grantham ladies live under the same roof as a cast of female relations, including mother and sisters and nearby Grandmama, who is either present, on her way, or just leaving, but Woolf was motherless by age 13. Her sister was off living her own life elsewhere, and while they corresponded and visited, Boxall was the closest person she had to a female family member to take care of her. Woolf is perhaps as well-known for her contributions to the literary canon as her proclivity towards mental instability, all of which made the delicate circumstances a writer requires all the more difficult to obtain. As she famously wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Leonard slept in his own room, and Boxall was paid to ensure Woolf’s was in fine form.

coverIn other words, Woolf’s needs were great, and though her comparatively smaller flats could have been neatly tucked away in a forgotten wing of Downton, most middle-class British households had one or more servants. Boxall was hired as the Woolf’s live-in servant at 52 Tavistock Square, where the writer would draft Mrs Dalloway. 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 diary…I should seize with greed upon the portrait of Nelly & make a story — perhaps make the whole story revolve around that.” No character on Downton would ever suggest such a thing, for to know that much about a servant or to speak intimately with strangers about one’s master would be, respectively, terribly boring and treasonous.

coverMuch like the relationship between master and servant, Woolf was in charge of everything that went into those diaries, which were then posthumously dissected over and over again on the pages of countless biographies — including the misspelling of Boxall’s name. As Alison Light wrote in her exceptional book, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, “Woolf and her subsequent biographers and critics refer to ‘Nelly’ Boxall, but, as I discovered, she is ‘Nellie’ on her birth and death certificates, she always signed herself as ‘Nellie’, and that is how her relatives spelt her name.”

coverLight figured out a bit more about Boxall than just the proper spelling of her name. The majority of Woolf scholars have too easily forgiven the master-servant dynamic in her household, too distracted by the significance of her artistic contributions and unquestioning of her sometimes contradictory political ideals. Herbert Marder is such a case, having focused on the works of Woolf since his dissertation at Columbia in the 1960s. In The Measure of Life, he wrote “Nellie was a natural manipulator who knew how to disarm her mistress, first getting under her skin and then exploiting her guilt.”

Woolf would certainly approve of such an assessment, but Marder does not appear particularly concerned with the absent, competing narrative, which could temper some of the seemingly harsh observations. Boxall was orphaned by the age of 12 and working by 14, so perhaps “manipulation” was mistaken for “will to survive.” After Boxall did something nice, like pick seven pounds of blackberries for Woolf’s favorite jam, bike for miles in order to procure cream for a favorite dish, or care for a woman who was at once fiercely independent and greatly in need of serious attention, Woolf noted that these gestures were borne out of genuine affection, and maybe, just maybe, the giver deserved compassion: “after all she has no other. And one tends to forget it.”

If Boxall was anything, it was dependent. Woolf boasted, “nothing I can do will prevent their loving me!” to the composer Ethel Smyth, and surely such a long, passionate relationship involved some grade of love, but Boxall had readily apparent, pragmatic motivations as well. She lived with the Woolfs, and had no family home waiting for her. In this way, she is much like Downton’s Daisy, the young kitchenmaid who, when offered an extraordinary opportunity to inherent her late husband’s family farm, admits she has never even contemplated a life outside of service. But this vestige of Victorianism had been on the decline since the 1890s, and women had options outside the home — their own or someone else’s. They could work in shops or factories, or apply some of those ‘domestic’ skills and become florists or beauticians. Those jobs would at least allow them a modicum of free time, with nights and weekends off, used for socializing or pursing other interests. As Light explained, “the regular callers, the hawkers and peddlers, who had been so much a part of the Victorian street, began to diminish,” and with them, the excitement of meeting someone new and the back door. It is also worth noting that the Woolfs’ fortunes greatly improved during the 18 years Boxall worked for them, but they paid her about six pounds less than the national average. Meanwhile, they readily updated the house with new domestic technology that made Boxall’s life easier, but also diminished her importance in the home.

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 Light. 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 a 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.’

To be fair, a world free of Boxall was just part of this fantasy. Woolf had grown up in large family cared for by a staff of seven, but she was a progressive woman of independent means. Her needs were different than her parents’, and most certainly her father’s, who she felt, like Boxall, was a fervid extortionist who dealt in histrionics. She would never again tolerate any outsider in her home, nor would she allow employees or friends to establish such intimacies. “I shall make no attachments ever again,” she wrote to Smyth in a celebration of her triumph, a scenario she no doubt presented as a thinly veiled warning. Her village cook, the young mother Annie Thompsett, was gone by 3:00 in the afternoon, and the Woolfs quickly adapted to, if not relished in, having an empty house to themselves for the first time in their marriage.

“After eighteen years I at last got rid of an affectionate domestic tyrant,” Woolf wrote to her sister in July of 1934, still reliving the dissolution in her correspondence. The termination had predictably devolved into quite a scene, with Boxall refusing to take a severance and Woolf upset she made off with the cookery books and a chair cover. Readers know Woolf’s eventual fate, but Boxall’s life took a favorable turn. She was soon hired by the famous British couple of the stage and screen, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, and quickly adjusted to her glamorous new life in a well-staffed, lavish but bohemian household, where her cooking was appreciated by the likes of Marlene Dietrich. Boxall enjoyed her own brush with fame, featured in an ad for a gas cooker. The tagline read, “Mr. & Mrs. Charles Laughton’s cook tells you how to roast beef to perfection.”

In the immediate aftermath of their breakup, Woolf got her peace, and Boxall her recognition, but they could not avoid each other forever. Bloomsbury society was small, and sure enough, the Woolfs showed up for dinner cooked by Boxall. Happy Powley, Elsa Lanchester’s maid, took note of the relationship between the famous author and her now friend and coworker in her diary, which stands in stark contrast to Woolf’s entries on the subject. It was Boxall who “had to leave because she was a bit high strung…of course you know Virginia Woolf was.”

If Boxall had residual anger towards her late employer, she did not seize an appearance on the national stage to vent her grievances. By the time Boxall appeared on the BBC radio in 1956, Woolf had drowned herself 15 years earlier. In what Light describes as a “quiet, meditative voice with a slight country burr,” Boxall spoke about her late ex-employer lovingly, emphasizing mutual acts of kindness, not recrimination, towards each other. She was not well when I met her, Boxall explained before launching into a lengthy description of all the special dishes she made to tempt Woolf into wellness. She even praised her former employer, calling upon a questionable event years earlier. When Boxall was sick in the hospital, Woolf financed her recovery in order to interview replacements, informing her she was not needed upon return, a threat she perhaps meant to execute, but eventually relented. Instead, Boxall remembered that “She came to see me in the ward carrying a huge pineapple and came straight up to the bed and cuddled me up.”

Whether it is the highly sanitized, anachronistic Downton or the long and tumultuous saga of the incompatible Boxall and Woolf, one thing is abundantly clear: The bond of servant and master is peculiar and problematic, then and now, as any relationship based on gross inequality is bound to be. What on earth do we make of all of this? Go ahead and count down the days until Julian Fellowes bestows another season of Downton on us, because it offers what fiction does: good fun at a benign distance.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

is a columnist at The Awl, The Toast, and SF Weekly. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, The Hairpin, and other publications. She holds a master’s degree in early 20th century political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library and oral historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Follow her.


  1. Normally I really hate people who weigh in on interesting articles only to line-edit, but the errors in this piece were so overwhelming that they completely derailed whatever (ultimately banal) point the author was trying to make about Nellie Boxall. The numerous infelicities range from the factual (Lord Grantham is a title; the family’s surname is still Crawley; the Woolfs lived on Tavistock Square, not Tavistrock, and I’m fairly certain they had started Hogarth Press before moving to number 52) to those of basic usage: “Like Downton’s Daisy, the young kitchenmaid who, when offered an extraordinary opportunity to inherent her late husband’s family farm, admits she has never even contemplated a life outside of service.” I’m not quite sure this sentence makes sense, even apart from the inherit/inherent confusion which a simple proofreading would have caught. I would have expressed these concerns directly to an editor but there was no obvious way to do so. This lack of editorial oversight is particularly distressing at a website dedicated to literary matters.

  2. Interesting article, but I agree with Elizabeth it needed proofreading/editing. For example, the word “dairy” when it should be “diary”

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