That's no lady, that's my wife

Love and Dirt
September 5, 2003

The obituaries of Arthur Munby, barrister and minor poet, who died in January 1910, recorded nothing unusual about his life. However, when his will was probated an astonished world heard that the respectable, upper-middle class Munby - friend of Ruskin, Rossetti, Tennyson and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon - had been secretly married to a domestic servant. In this readable book, Diane Atkinson retells the scandal that captured newspaper headlines of the day.

It was in 1854 that the 21-year-old Hannah Cullwick met Munby, just four years her senior. Tall and strong, with 35cm biceps, she was walking down Oxford Street when he spoke to her. Although the physical attraction between them was overpowering, Hannah could not understand why a "gentleman" would be interested in her, a "common drudge".

What she did not know was that Munby's hobby was recording the lives of the lowest working-class women, dustwomen, scullery maids, pit brown women, mudlarks, rag-pickers and trotter-scrapers.

Munby was not drawn to women of his own social strata and thought he had found the perfect female being: "Her clothing, her large bare round ruddy arms and her laborious hands were those of the humblest servant, but her lovely young face was queenlike in feature and expression. Such a combination I had dreamt of and sought for, but I have never seen it save in her." Too timid to defy the social-class conventions of his day, he initiated a secretive, cross-class liaison that lasted for the rest of their lives.

Early on in the relationship, Hannah called Munby "Massa", a term that derived from her native Shropshire but also echoed the subjection of the negro slave whose blackness she replicated. Munby liked Hannah to "blacken up", smearing over her face and limbs the lead used to clean stoves. She also went up sooty chimneys, naked except for her drawers and a bag on her head. Licking Massa's boots was another of her duties, her subordinate status emphasised by the wearing of a slave chain to which only Munby had the key. We know this since he not only kept a diary but asked Hannah to do so, detailing her everyday work. They also wrote to each other and visited photographers who took Hannah's picture in various guises.

After 20 years of chaste courtship, they married in 1873. But Munby's efforts to transform his wife into a "lady" failed miserably. Hannah did not like to wear a veil or gloves, although she did seek self-improvement through evening classes and the reading of classic novels. She fell ill, probably through excessive drinking, and a doctor advised that she be sent to the country. Munby ignored her heart-rending letters to be allowed back home. Instead, he regularly visited the cottages in which she lodged.

Eventually Hannah owned her own cottage, in her home village of Shifnal, where she died, alone, in 1909. The grieving Munby, who kept all their papers for prosperity, passed away six months later.

Atkinson's compelling narrative is less informative than it might have been since she fails to locate her book within the existing historiography on the subject. Although some limited reference is made to Derek Hudson's Munby: Man of Two Worlds (1972), she does not draw upon the work of Leonora Davidoff, Julia Swindells and Liz Stanley. Nor does she discuss the limitations of her sources; in particular, she fails to observe that since Hannah wrote her diaries for Munby, the maid may have penned what she thought Massa wanted to hear.

Atkinson too readily portrays Hannah as a willing slave to Munby's exhortation to win grace through hard, dirty work, missing the times when a proud Hannah asserted her independence: "However much I love to be a slave or servant to you, that's no reason why you should urge me on to it," she wrote in 1895. Indeed, little speculation is offered about why their relationship took the form it did and how it changed over time.

Overall, this book offers a moving account of an unconventional, bizarre love story that may fascinate students in higher education as well as the general reader. However, it is unlikely to be the last word on the subject.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.

Love and Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick

Author - Diane Atkinson
ISBN - 0 333 78071 X
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £15.99
Pages - 365

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