This diary for 1924 belonged to Grace Higgens, née Germany. It was kept in a regular exercise book, written in pencil. Born in Norfolk in 1903, Grace worked for the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant for over 50 years as housemaid, nurse, cook and finally housekeeper, first in Gordon Square in London’s Bloomsbury, then at Charleston, the farmhouse located in the South Downs of east Sussex.
In 2007 the British Library acquired the archive of Grace Higgens, consisting of her diaries, letters and photographs. Revealing a lively, charming, funny and hardworking woman, the archive provides a remarkable insight into an era of domestic service from the perspective of life ‘below stairs’. Grace’s records of daily life, peppered with frank, amusing impressions of famous figures such as Virginia Woolf and E M Forster, also offer a fresh view on Bloomsbury life.
What is found in this extract?
Since Charleston was not far from Rodmell, where Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived at Monk’s House, there were frequent meetings between the two households – including the servants, who often met at the local pub, The Barley Mow. In this diary entry for 28 August 1924 Grace records that ‘Mrs Woolf arrived after tea to the great joy of the household, as she is very amusing, + helps to cheer them up’ (f. 2r). A few days later, on 2 September, she records that while out on a walk she comes across both ‘Woolves’ riding bicycles, looking ‘absolute freaks’ in their tattered old clothes (f. 7r). In the same entry Grace captures one of the family’s jovial, eccentric exploits with her account of ‘Duncan Grant the artist, thinking to frighten us dressed up in some weird clothes, and hobbled about, Lowie thought he was a cow, Mrs Vanessa Bell was very amused, also were Julian + Quentin’ (f. 9r).
The extract is bursting with details and observations of people, events and the household’s activities. Grace writes about a close motorcar accident, a séance, pub trips, and her many admirers (whom she appears to have little patience for), as well as her relationship with fellow servants (Alice ‘will persist in discussing Nature in an indecent + vulgar way, which is extremely revolting, I told her so, but she did not like it’, f. 3r).