Monday, June 23, 2008

The veriest drudge

Tonight (23 June) at 9pm the UK broadcaster, Channel 4, is screening the final part of its Victorian Passions documentary season. This episode is entitled Upstairs Downstairs Love, and focuses on the relationship between a trained solicitor, Arthur Munby, and a servant woman Hanna Cullwick. Apart from the cross-class nature of the relationship, two other factors make this a worthy documentary subject. Firstly, the two had a long-term and complicated sexual relationship based on their real master/servant roles; and, secondly, they both wrote about it in some detail in diaries.

Cullwick had humble origins, although, unusually, she did learn to read and write. From the age of eight, she worked as a servant in various situations. In 1854, she met Munby, a trained solicitor acting for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Office. He had a long-standing interest in working class women, and became fascinated with Cullwick. Subsequently, she took a variety of part-time servant jobs so as to be near him in London. In 1873, they married secretly, and Cullwick went to live in Munby’s lodgings. Nevertheless she retained her maiden name, and her servant’s job, and her servant’s salary. In the early 1880s she left him, and took a position in her home county of Shropshire. However, Munby was a regular visitor until her death.

Wikipedia has entries on both Munby and Cullwick. According to the one on Cullwick, she proudly referred to herself as Munby's ‘drudge and slave’. For much of her life, she wore a leather strap around her right wrist and a locking chain around her neck, to which Munby had a key. She wrote letters almost daily to him, describing her long hours of work in great detail, and she would arrange to visit him ‘in my dirt’, showing the results of a full day of cleaning and other domestic work.

According to Wikipedia’s entry on Munby his interest in working class women led him to collect hundreds of photographs of, for example, female mine workers, kitchen maids, milkmaids, charwomen, and acrobats. These were left, along with his and Cullwick’s diaries, to Trinity College, Cambridge, but were not opened to the public until 1950, as per the terms of Munby’s will. Since then, they’ve been used extensively by researchers, especially those examining the role of women during the Victorian period.

There is good information about the diaries and a few extracts on the website of Adam Matthews Publications, which promotes a digital version of the Munby papers held by Trinity College. There is also quite a lot from the diaries in Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives by Joy Webster Barbre much of which can be browsed at Google Books.

Finally, an interesting article by Helen Merrick in Limina, a journal of historical and cultural studies, can be found at the University of Western Australia website. Merrick refers to several Munby diary extracts of which this is one, from 19 August 1860: ‘. . . let me look on this hardworking simplicity, this humble unselfish devotion, which finds its highest expression in the doings of a sweep or a lapdog, and feel, unreservedly, what I always meant to prove - that the veriest drudge, such as she is, becomes heroic when she truly loves.’

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