Below stairs in Bloomsbury – the untold story of Grace Higgens, ‘The Angel of Charleston’

  • The Angel of Charleston: Grace Higgens, Housekeeper to the Bloomsbury Group is published 8 October 2013

This week the British Library publishes the first biography of Grace Higgens, housekeeper to the artist Vanessa Bell for fifty years. The Angel of Charleston offers a quirky insider’s insight into life with the Bloomsbury group as well as a glimpse into Grace’s own character from her unseen diaries and letters from the time.

Acquired by the British Library in 2007, the Grace Higgens archive includes accounts of her years in Gordon Square, Charleston and the South of France giving a vivid and intimate picture of life with the Bells and their friends, complementing what we already know of the 'above stairs' world of the Bloomsbury set.

The Angel of Charleston features moving entries about the death of Vanessa Bell in 1961 and of Grace's final years at Charleston looking after the elderly Duncan Grant, but also humorous descriptions of the varied denizens of Charleston, such as Lydia Lopokova, Roger Fry, E. M. Forster and, of course, Virginia Woolf - 'I met Mr and Mrs Leonard Woolf, riding on their bicycles to Charleston. They looked absolute freaks.'

Grace’s perceptive and humorous impressions of key Bloomsbury figures are accompanied by descriptions of the daily life of a servant in mid-twentieth-century England, illuminating a little-known era of domestic service and giving a below-stairs view of life at the eccentric heart of Britain’s cultural life.

Stewart Mackay, author of the book, says: ‘How fascinating to have a truly fresh perspective upon life in Bloomsbury! Such a voice, which adds significantly to the Bloomsbury picture, has emerged from obscurity in recent years. It echoes out from the heart of the house, below the Turkish carpets and varnished floorboards. It is the voice of Grace Higgens.’

Stewart MacKay is a writer, archivist and cultural historian. He has taught Art History throughout Italy for the past seven years and guest-lectured in English Literature across the United States.

The Angel of Charleston is published on Tuesday 8 October.


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The Angel of Charleston: Grace Higgens, Housekeeper to the Bloomsbury Group by Stewart MacKay is published on Tuesday 8 October 2013.

Price: £16.99 / ISBN 978 0 7123 5867 5 / Hardback/ 160 pages

This new title will be available from 8 October 2013 from the British Library Shop (tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7735 / and online at as well as other bookshops throughout the UK.

Stewart MacKay will be giving a talk and signing copies of the new title on 9 October at 11.30am at Charleston

For more information:

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+44 (0) 20 7412 7150

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