Dishing the Servant Dirt
My latest book, Mr. Bishop and the Actress, is about servants, more or less. The hero and heroine are upper servants, and their relationship with their employers is almost as strong as their relationship with each other. In her fabulous review at Dear Author, Jennie said,
*It’s a strange world we live in where romances featuring vampires, angels and werewolves (or possibly even a vampire/angel/werewolf hybrid) are de rigeur, but a simple historical romance between two commoners has to be hunted down or purchased from international sources.I'm much more interested in commoners than dukes, and I've been researching servants for several years; servants were the largest workforce in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Just recently, from an entry in the 1901 census, I found out that my maternal grandmother was in service before she married.
But today I want to talk about a truly extraordinary master-servant relationship that historians have tiptoed around a bit, and with good reason--that of Hannah Cullwick (1833-1909) and her master, Arthur Munby (1828-1910). Hannah wrote a diary, published in 1984 by Virago Press, UK (now out of print) that gives an extraordinarily detailed account of the everyday life of a Victorian servant.
But it's more than that.
Hannah wrote the diary at the instigation of her lover-employer-husband Arthur Mumby, who had a fetish for working class women and a form of mysophilia--in other words, he got off on dirt, specifically women getting dirty. So a passage like this would get Arthur all hot and bothered:
Lighted the fire. Brush'd the grates. Clean'd the hall & steps & flags on my knees. Swept & dusted the rooms. Got breakfast up. Made the beds & emptied the slops. Cleaned & wash'd up...Cleaned the stairs & the pantry on my knees. Clean'd the knives & got dinner. Clean'd 3 pairs of boots. Clean'd away after dinner & began the preserving about ½ past 3 & kept on till 11, leaving off only to get the supper & have my tea...Went to bed very tired & dirty.Boots, by the way, figure rather largely in their relationship.
Hannah took great pride in her strength and endurance, choosing always to remain at the bottom of the Victorian servant food chain, as a maid of all work. A lawyer and amateur artist, poet, and anthropologist, Munby had a huge collection of photographs and other records of working women that he bequeathed to Trinity College Cambridge. You can see some of his pictures of female pit workers in Wigan here, photographed in a studio, but with authentic dirt intact.
Hannah met Munby in 1854 and he followed her around from one position to another, watching her beat carpets and so on, and she was fired from at least one household because of his interest in her--this was a period, of course, when women servants were not allowed to have gentleman followers. Working at boarding houses rather than private houses gave her greater freedom. Eventually he hired her in 1872 and they married secretly the following year. But to all intents and purposes she was still his servant, and Munby's friends--who included Ruskin, Rosetti, and Browning--had no idea of the true relationship, one that seems to have been classic BDSM.
For freedom & true lowliness, there's nothing like being a maid of all work (1872)She wore a locking chain around her neck, for which Munby had the key, and a leather strap on one wrist as a sign of his ownership. Munby liked her to dress up in various disguises--as a man, a chimney sweep, in blackface. She referred to him as "Massa."
But she had an extraordinarily strong sense of independence outside their fantasy life. She insisted, even after marriage, on receiving wages and keeping her own name, and she left him in 1877, although he continued to visit her, but presumably on her terms.
Here's an excerpt from the movie On My Knees based on Hannah's diaries with Melora Creager of Rasputina--very haunting, particularly the soundtrack. The BBC also made a documentary but you can't view the excerpts in the US, which is a pity because the series on underground Victorian sexuality looks fascinating.
I'm fascinated by Hannah who had such courage--at least, that's the way I see it--to follow her own instincts. What do you think?
*Find Mr. Bishop and the Actress at bookdepository.com (free shipping worldwide), Amazon Kindle, or enter a contest at Pam Rosenthal's site (and do watch the wonderful video while you're there).