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 insiders insight into life with the Bloomsbury group as well as a glimpse into Graces 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.'
Graces 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 Britains cultural life.
Stewart Mackay, author of the book and the archivist who explored Graces life when cataloguing her archive, 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, guest-lectured in English Literature across the United States and has worked as an archivist at the British Library.