David R. Henderson  

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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Her servants.

Today Google has highlighted author Virginia Woolf, who was born 136 years ago today.

How the heck does this relate to economics? Here's how. In his excellent 2010 book At Home, Bill Bryson, in describing the life of a servant about 100 years ago in Britain, writes:

Perhaps the hardest part of the job was simply being attached to and dependent on people who didn't think much of you. Virginia Woolf's diaries are almost obsessively preoccupied with her servants and the challenge of maintaining patience with them. Of one, she writes: "She is in a state of nature: untrained; uneducated . . . so that one sees a human mind wriggling undressed." As a class they were irritating as "kitchen flies." Woolf's contemporary Edna St. Vincent Millay was rather more blunt: "The only people I really hate are servants. They are not really human beings at all."

This comes only a few pages after Bryson has explained the hard work the "kitchen flies" did in hauling buckets of water upstairs for baths.

As was said to a woman in an ad for another Virginia, Virginia Slims, "you've come a long way, baby." And we can thank relatively free markets. And no, I'm not endorsing cigarettes.

Here's my review of Bryson's book.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
James Pass writes:

Holy smokes! In a college English Lit class I was assigned Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." This was many decades ago but I recall thinking of Woolf as a strong and downright evangelical feminist. Unfortunately I don't recall if she mentioned servants in that book, but I clearly recall that she felt women who were denied education, rights and the means of self-support were consequently being denied the expression of their human abilities. To illustrate this point in "A Room of One's Own," Woolf wrote about a fictional character, Shakespeare's sister, who was just as talented as her brother but had no means or opportunity to express it. (I wonder if Woolf had Shakespeare's sister ending up as a servant? I don't recall.)

It's hard to reconcile "A Room of One's Own" with the dismissive attitude suggested by Bryson's diary excerpt. I've read many of Bryson's books but not "At Home."

If I read the entirety of Woolf's diaries, maybe I would find some mitigating context missing from Bryson's excerpt. It's possible to feel "irritated" by ignorant people, it's even possible to regard such people as little better than animals, while still feeling empathy and compassion for them. In other words, at the same time Woolf admitted to feeling irritated and impatient, she might also consider the possibility that under different circumstances the servants might be another Shakespeare, even if she didn't bother to state this explicitly in a diary entry.

Allow me to offer a lighthearted analogy. One year I volunteered to teach an afterschool class at my kids' school. I normally enjoy kids, but it turned out to be one of the most stressful years of my life. Within a couple of months I HATED teaching the class but I was STUCK. I felt constantly irritated and impatient with the kids - doing my best not to show it - because it turned out that I am not very good at keeping order in a large class of kids who are easily bored with the subject.

I was teaching 9- and 10-year-olds how to play guitar, and I had them for an hour. The kids expected that they would learn how to play cool rock songs quickly and easily. When they realized that learning guitar wasn't so easy, and it required daily PRACTICE at home, and it hurt their fingers, and it takes a lot of effort just to learn how to tune a guitar properly, well, they lost all interest. But I still had to go through the motions. I tried getting them to at least sing popular folk songs with me, but they soon got bored with that too. The kind of pop music that was popular with kids at that time was not the kind of music amenable to singalongs with a guitar.

As for Millay's comment, I wonder if she is being taken out of context too. I'm not familiar with her works and life, but I know she was regarded as a feminist. She might have been saying, in a blunt and careless way, that human beings are not human beings unless they are educated and civilized. Sometimes people refer to ignorant human beings as "animals." It's a nuance of meaning that can be misconstrued. Today we normally refer to people as animals only if they've committed some heinous act (which may not be very fair to non-human animals).

I'm not trying to defend Woolf or Millay, because I don't know enough about them to offer a defense or any kind of explanation. Those kinds of statements offer some interesting areas of exploration for anyone who has a particular interest in either of those women. I suppose I'm saying that I'm not ready to pass judgment just yet.

How does this relate to economics? Well, there's supposed to be a link between education, standard of living and job opportunities. Coincidentally, Bryan Caplan has written a book on education. Woolf put a very high value on education, when men were being educated and women weren't. In Woolf's time, education meant a classical education. I wonder what Mr. Caplan would say about the value of a classical education today. Would he consider it wasteful?

mike shupp writes:

Reminds me of another English authoress of about the same era -- Agatha Christie, who remarked somewhere that as a young girl she had never expected to be rich enough to own a car, or so poor as to not have servants.

Interesting reflections, are these not, on the nature of society a century ago and today.

Conscience of a Citizen writes:

Baumol's Cost Disease has deprived nearly everyone in the First World of personal servants.* That bothers a significant number of (often arrogant) people, who react by promoting mass unskilled immigration specifically to provide themselves with cheap servants (see numerous comments to Bryan Caplan's open-borders posts-- and look at all the illegal-alien housekeepers in the homes of American lawyers, who of course omit to pay Social Security taxes on their servants' wages unless they are nominated to a Federal judgeship).

In modern First World societies few people are acculturated to subservient employment. Many people, especially (if rather counterintuitively) poor people--who are often insufficiently future-oriented to play humble roles just to earn money--see personal service as demeaning and avoid jobs where they are expected to be obsequious. Immigrants from LDC's are less obstreperous.

Unfortunately for First World middle-class taxpayers, Baumol's Cost Disease and Mancur-Olsonism also create high costs to care for the aged or sick cheap-immigrant-servants discarded by their arrogant employers (who import them and work them until their knees give out, then fire them with parting advice to apply for Medicaid, SSI, Food Stamps (SNAP), and Section 8 Housing Vouchers). In effect, importing poor servants simply transfers the high price of keeping servants from their employers to taxpayers (who still have to mop their own floors, even as they pay taxes to support the worn-out ex-servants of the rich).

*Happily, indoor plumbing, laundry machines, supermarkets full of prepared foods, etc. have largely substituted for household servants, sparing everyone a lot of aggravation.

Jon Murphy writes:


I'm having trouble following the logic of your comment, especially because there appears to be a rather large contradiction/tension in it:

You begin by saying "Happily, indoor plumbing, laundry machines, supermarkets full of prepared foods, etc. have largely substituted for household servants, sparing everyone a lot of aggravation." However, the very next sentence you say "That bothers a significant number of (often arrogant) people, who react by promoting mass unskilled immigration specifically to provide themselves with cheap servants." This tension seems huge to me: how can it be that all the modern conveniences you note have "deprived nearly everyone in the First World of personal servants" but at the same time mass unskilled immigration is providing everyone (or, at least the wealthy) with servants?

This tension needs to be resolved, especially since the evidence you cite is rather weak: I can't recall a single instance in comments on Dr. Caplan's posts where people call for open borders solely for the purpose of "importing servants." I'd love to see some examples. You also seem to think that servants compromise a large majority of illegal immigrant occupations. I'd like to see your data on that.

Indeed, the reasoning you give for your argument (that there are some jobs Americans simply do not want to do) indicates that the reason for unskilled immigration has nothing to do with some desire for lording over people, but rather to meet demand for labor needs (as an aside, this line of reasoning greatly weakens one of the restrictionists' arguments that immigration reduces wages of domestic labor. If your reasoning is correct, there'd be no effect).

All in all, you seem to have a very strange argument that has some tensions in it that are not obvious to the reader they're resolvable.

Tim Worstall writes:

"Service" in England was an interesting thing. By 100 years ago (late WWI sorta time) it was becoming only the rich who had them. And it was definitely a class based thing, working class (or servant's class perhaps) became servants.

Before that, up to some date I'm not willing to nail down, it was much more like an apprenticeship before marriage than anything else. At age 12 or 14, off into service. Leave late teens, perhaps into 20s, to marry. There were some who stayed whole lives and careers as servants, to be sure, they often ended up as nannies, butlers, housekeepers etc. But the bulk of the workforce was turning over.

Boys might well get a guild or trade apprenticeship instead but girls, most usually, into service. It taught them how they would run their own households. And many who had been servants would go on to have them themselves at an older age.

Nice link in with one of those explanations of the Industrial Revolution. The English were different, marrying later than many others. Service, often enough, was that gap in between puberty and marriage.

My own grandmother was in service about the time Woolf was writing and on that very basis. Something that would stop at marriage and she most certainly expected to marry.

David R Henderson writes:

@James Pass,
Thanks for your comment about your own experience.
If I read the entirety of Woolf's diaries, maybe I would find some mitigating context missing from Bryson's excerpt.
You might. I wouldn’t have quoted it, though, if I had thought that. It was this sentence in Bryson’ book--"Virginia Woolf's diaries are almost obsessively preoccupied with her servants and the challenge of maintaining patience with them”--that caused me to think she had an attitude. But I admit that I will probably go to my grave without having read Virginia Woolf’s diaries to confirm or disconfirm Bryson’s claim.

Michael Stallman writes:

I don't think things are really all that much different today. there's still an underclass of janitors, landscapers, nannies, eldercare, and housecleaners who are treated cordially but not with whole-hearted welcome. As a commenter notes above, the main thing that's changed is they no longer live with us, and appliances and e.g. modern plumbing keeps them out of our day-to-day. Therefore we don't have opportunity to develop niggling annoyances such as filled Virginia's diaries. The servant class today is more distant, but not any better paid or better regarded.

David R Henderson writes:

@Michael Stallman,
The servant class today is more distant, but not any better paid or better regarded.
I don’t know enough to comment on how well regarded they are. I do know enough to comment on well they are paid. They are way better paid than their counterparts 100 years ago. Standards of living over that time, for virtually everyone in the rich countries, have 10-tupled or more.

David R Henderson writes:

@Michael Stallman,
The servant class today is more distant, but not any better paid or better regarded.
I have no opinion about the “better regarded” part. But I do know for sure that, if we’re talking about servants in the U.K. and the U.S., they are definitely better paid. Over the last 100 years, real income per capita has more than ten-tupled.

James Pass writes:

Mr. Henderson wrote: It was this sentence in Bryson’ book--"Virginia Woolf's diaries are almost obsessively preoccupied with her servants and the challenge of maintaining patience with them”--that caused me to think she had an attitude.

Yes, I had the same reaction to that sentence as you did. I admire Bryson and I think he's a careful and conscientious researcher and writer. And yet, because I've read Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," which is a powerful, passionate and reasoned argument for feminism as well as the redeeming and humanizing effects of education and self-independence, I want to resolve what feels like an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance.

Even if I had time to study Woolf's diaries, I wouldn't do so just for the sake of checking Bryson's impressions. Her published diaries comprise over 1500 pages in five volumes. In a New York Times detailed summary of the five volumes, this excerpt was written about the first volume:

"This first volume, covering the years of the Great War, tells of shortages and moonlit air raids, of strikes and huddling in cellars, of frustrations with servants and in-laws . . . but she is also malicious in the way of the class she was born into. She calls the common people 'animals,' 'a tepid mass of flesh scarcely organized into human life.'"

Servants were not mentioned in the summaries for the other four volumes. That means that, if I wanted to research this question, I should start with the first volume. If I wanted to be more diligent, I'd have to read both the multiple volumes of diaries and letters. Sigh. Before I did that I'd probably look for a good biography, written by someone who read the diaries and letters and did a lot of other research besides.

Here's something else to consider that might help me reconcile what appears to be two opposing aspects of Woolf's character: The first volume of diaries covers the period between 1915-1919, while "A Room of One's Own" was written in 1929. In 1915 Woolf was 33, and in 1929 she was 47. People have been known to change some of their views over time, and Woolf's views on servants and lower classes might have evolved. Again, these are all interesting questions for a biographer to explore.

As you know, "At Home" contains a very broad scope of history, so I would guess that Bryson didn't read all five volumes of Woolf's diaries. If he did that amount of research for every tidbit in his book, it would have taken him a lifetime to finish it.

All that said, I think I understand the takeaway Bryson wanted readers to grasp: A hundred years ago the upper classes in Britain looked down on servants, and being a servant was a hard job, physically, emotionally, economically. The frustrations, insecurities and uncertainties many of us feel today about our jobs and livelihood would probably pale in comparison. It's funny how my reading of one book by Woolf can engender such a strong reaction to a casual reference in Bryson's book. Bryson was probably using quotes from Woolf and Millay to make a general point in an entertaining fashion, rather than trying to say anything definitive about Woolf and Millay. Bryson excels at imparting otherwise dry information in an entertaining fashion.

David R Henderson writes:

@James Pass,
Well said.

Weir writes:

She was a eugenicist, same as Yeats and Shaw and Wells. Her contempt for "miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic" imbeciles was unequivocal. ("They should certainly be killed.")

Also an anti-Semite. ("I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh.")

She was, of course, a snob. ("I have to write about working women all morning, which is as if you had to sew canopies round chamber pots.")

And she knew all this quite well. ("Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself.")

Her diaries and letters are so thrilling to read because she's not evasive or self-censoring. You'd think you were reading her brain itself.

She put herself on record. All the evidence is laid out, by her, in advance of her trial. ("All that lowbrows do is of surpassing interest and wonder to me, because, in so far as I am a highbrow, I cannot do things myself.")

So yes, she was absolutely guilty as charged of cruelty to her servants and to her husband. ("How I hated marrying a Jew -- how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles -- what a snob I was, for they have immense vitality, and I think I like that quality best of all.")

But compare her to our own ruling class. You don't have to be a direct descendant of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen to be snobbish now. It's enough to have a job at NBC or the Huffington Post. Buzzfeed writers are as contemptuous and as hateful as Virginia Woolf.

Melinda Byerley sees herself as an "educated person." But the kind of "hole" she's talking about when she writes off the entirety of middle America as a country "no educated person wants to live" in, full of towns that "have nothing going for them," suggests a kind of black hole in her capacity to imagine anything outside her own little circle. She's just a bigot. She's just thoughtless and blinkered and smug.

But that's 2018. Even people who don't employ any servants of one's own now speak with Woolf's venom about poor people, outsiders, people who are different or not educated like Melinda Byerley.

mike shupp writes:

There's a flip side to this. PG Wodehouse created Reginald Jeeves, the world's most noted "gentleman's gentleman" -- i.e., valet -- in 1915. Bertie Wooster does not look down on Jeeves. Not too much later, in 1921, Dorothy Sayers brought Lord Peter Wimsey to life, also with a valet -- Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey's batman in the Great War, who continues to serve as a body servant and as Watson for the Great Aristocratic Detective. Bunter was also highly regarded, by his (fictional) master and his authoress and readers of the Wimsey novels.

I'm trying to suggest that Virginia Woolf's disdain for servants may not have been a universal sentiment, even in the narrow world of the English upper class, I find myself speculating that as a normal school child, young Virginia would regarded almost all her classmates as ignorant and ignorable trash.

Conscience of a Citizen writes:

@Jon Murphy:

A century ago about 9% of the American workforce was in domestic service, today it's less than 1% (link). We don't have mass unskilled immigration already providing everyone with cheap servants-- as I actually wrote, we have people promoting mass unskilled immigration to increase the supply of cheap servants.

Econlog commenters don't often set down the old-fashioned words "cheap servants" to explain what they want. Instead, as in this example (link) they seek immigrants to provide them with cheap "drivers" and "cooks" and (household) "help."

Also, thanks to tremendous advances in transportation and communications (e.g., automobiles and more recently cell phones) a lot of "servant's work" is now performed on an outcall basis, rather than a live-in basis. Housekeeping, gardening, driving, elder-care... all of them and others were live-in jobs until circa 1930. Though the people doing them moved out of their employers' homes long ago, Baumol's cost disease has made even day-servants hard for the less affluent to afford now.

The most sincere balm for any wound to the pride of a worker offered a "servile" job is a simple raise in pay. Though immigration boosters love to describe their "servant problem" as a "labor shortage," they always leave out the vital qualification "at the [tiny] wages we prefer to offer." At a competitive wage (but there's Baumol again!) there would be no "labor shortage."

(Of course low-skill immigration reduces wages for domestic workers. So far as employers are concerned that is the whole point of immigration-- at every skill level in fact, just look at Silicon Valley's greed for H1-b's.)

Worse, as I pointed out, is the way cheap-immigrant employers privatize benefits and socialize costs. The "true cost" of employing low-wage immigrants includes the cost of caring for them when they are sick or aged or just out of work. Low-wage workers do not earn enough to pay for their own medical care even if 100% of their income were devoted to it-- average cost (USA, 2013) of healthcare per hour worked in the USA is about $12, exceeding a low-wage-worker's hourly pay!). Low-wage workers are paid less than subsistence in the USA, with the difference made up by EITC, Medicaid, FHA rent vouchers, Food Stamps (SNAP), CHIP, public schooling, free lunches, SSI, and eventually Social Security (which as you know is a progressive transfer program). It is a crime against citizens to make them pay taxes to support low-wage immigrants so they can work for below-subsistence wages.


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