Monday, December 26, 2016

Who has the time?

Eliot at his desk at Faber & Faber
T.S. Eliot, from the age of 29 until he was 37, worked at Lloyd’s bank. This was from 1917 until 1925. His hours would have been 9:15 am to 5:30 pm Monday to Friday, plus one Saturday a month. There were two weeks of vacation a year. During this period, which starts around the publication of his first book Prufrock and Other Observations, he published the collection Poems 1920, influential essays such as ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, and in the year 1922 he published The Wasteland as well as founding the quarterly The Criterion which he edited for the next 17 years.

Recall Cyril Connolly’s observation that “we cannot think if we have no time to read.” Eliot in a letter of 29 April 1927 (in Vol 3 1926-1927) to editor of The Evening Standard writes how contributors to The Criterion are “supporting themselves and their families in the Civil Service, or in museums, or in universities, or in banks and commercial houses, and are thus able to think, and read, and write independently of a livelihood.” As Stephen Collini observes in his recent book Common Writing, “Several kinds of social and economic change thereafter combined to bring about a much sharper contrast between a university post and these other occupations; in the early twenty-first century we hardly think of a job in a bank or a commercial house, or even perhaps in the civil service, as allowing much leisure to ‘think, and read, and write’ about literary and intellectual matters.” Perhaps the absence of television or the internet might also partly explain how normal employment could leave time for literary pursuits, that and — amongst the middle classes — the universal use of servants, live in domestic staff and ‘dailies’ to tend to the business of running a household. The lighting of fires, the cleaning of the house, the laundry, the shopping, the preparation of meals: all this was done by domestic staff.

In her book The Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service, Alison Light states that “without all the domestic care and hard work which servants provided there would have been no art, no writing, no ‘Bloomsbury.’” Rosemary Hill, in her LRB Review of that book starkly describes Virginia Woolf’s last months:  “With the winter her state of mind deteriorated and as her final illness began she found comfort in cleaning, telling her doctor that she had ‘taken to scrubbing floors when she couldn’t write’. Leonard hoped the mechanical tasks might be therapeutic and encouraged her to help Louie Everest, their daily, who was somewhat surprised: ‘I had never known her want to do any housework with me before.’ Woolf, who had once found it humiliating to do her own shopping, spent the last morning of her life dusting with Louie, before she put the duster down and went to drown herself.”

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