Sep 142005

Hudson, Derek. “Munby: Man of Two Worlds” John Murray, 1972

It is hateful to be reminded thus, that one cannot show one’s chiefest treasure to any living soul, because of that very homeliness and lowliness which is one of its best charms to me.

-The diaries of Arthur Munby, 23 March 1862

Munby and Cullwick met in 1854, but they didn’t start keeping detailed diaries until 1860, unfortunately. Furthermore, in the first few years Munby kept tearing out pages which probably had to do with Cullwick. This is a pain, because it means that there are no direct accounts of the early stage of their relationship.

Even more frustrating, there are surprisingly few mentions of Hannah Cullwick, though they pick up in 1863. I don’t know if this is Munby’s self-censoring or Hudson’s editorial decisions. Hudson barely touches on some of the juiciest stuff, with brief quotes instead of the full entries. Cullwick calls herself Munby’s “faithful drudge and slave!” in an entry dated 3 August 1862.

I still don’t know where the Master-slave aspect came from. Did Munby concoct it from his classical education, or did it have more to do with his fondness for negro minstrel shows? Or did Cullwick devise it based on the play The Death of Sardanapalus?

Munby loved constrast and transformation. His description of working women compared their intelligence and dedication to their physical coarseness. In a photography session on 9 August 1862, he had Cullwick posed as chimneysweep, “in her dirt.”

… she was taken in the same black and forlorn condition, crouching on the ground at my feet– I doing my best to look down upon her like a tyrant! That was for ‘the contrast’: contrast indeed– but which was the nobler?

She wished to be photographed also in an attitude of her own: and this being granted, she sat down on the floor, with only her shift and serge petticoat on, & thrust out a bare foot, leaning on one knee and clasping her [locked slave neck] chain with the other hand. She was so anxious about this pose, which was very happy, that I enquired its meaning when we were alone. It was ‘the way I sit on the floor when I’m going to bed, and–think of you!’

McClintock, in “Imperial Leather”, portrays Arthur J Munby as a smug, bourgeois doofus, but I feel sympathy for Munby. Here is a guy who, whether by nature or nurture, had no interest, emotional or sexual, in the kind of women he was supposed to marry. His desires were out of step with social norms, which describes any kinky or queer person.

Munby could have married a woman of appropriate social status and continued his “studies” of working women on the sly. He could have discretely schtupped the housemaid on a regular basis. Plenty of other men of his status had mistresses or patronized prostitutes, or made sexual access a condition of employment for the household help.

Instead, he married Cullwick. This was more a matter of legitimating their existing relationship than reaching a greater degree of intimacy or commitment. It wasn’t a decision he made lightly, nor did it create the domestic bliss he hoped, but he viewed it as the moral choice, instead of the pragmatic choice. Munby didn’t exactly come out of the closet, but he didn’t lead a sham life of middle-class respectability either. He chose to follow his bliss and be wed (albeit in secret) to a woman he cared deeply about. Undeniably, there was a vast gulf in class between them, and covert power struggles, but they met each others wants and needs in a way no one else could.

Until and unless I get some serious money to purchase research collections, I have to work with Hudson’s book and the like. I hope the inter library loan for Cullwick’s diaries come through. I really need to read her side of the story.

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