Alison Light
Mrs. Woolf & the Servants: An Intimate History of Bloomsbury
Bloomsbury Press, 376 pages, $30.

An American economist, I think it was, once remarked that a single servant is worth a household full of appliances; in my experience, he was absolutely right. To be relieved of the tedium of looking after oneself, and of the day-to-day tasks that can make life such a trial and a bore, is to enter a state of near-bliss. One of the reasons that some of our polymathic ancestors were able to achieve so much was that they never had to do anything for themselves.

But there are also difficulties with servants. No man, said Napoleon, is a hero to his valet; and a servant is inclined to know more about you than you might wish him (or anyone else) to know. It is always a pleasure to discover that others have feet of clay; it is not so pleasurable to realize that others must have made the same discovery about...