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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 March 2011

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).

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10 Comments:

Blogger Sharon Buchbinder said...

Fascinating post, Janet. A feminist in disguise. Seems like the lower classes may have had the last laugh when it came to freedom for women.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Wow. Just, wow.

And I'm so excited to see this is out as an Ebook. Did I miss that option with the others? Regardless, this one is now waiting on my phone to be started on my way home from work. Yea!!!

7:35 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

@Isobel, I had no idea Mr Bishop was out on Kindle until I stumbled upon it at amazon! The only one so far. Since the line is ending I'm not sure about the others.

@Sharon, yes Hannah was ahead of her time in so many ways.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Miss Tami Lee said...

This was such an interesting read! I work in the adult industry and find anything about deviant sexual behaviour so fascinating, especially when stuff like this happened 'back in the day'

10:32 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

It's on Kindle???? I'm so there....

Very interesting post, Janet!

4:25 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Tami, the Victorians were very serious about porn! What's so fascinating about Hannah's diary is that it's authentic and not fictional or written with publication in mind. And, of course, really written by a woman!

6:28 PM  
Blogger Kate Dolan said...

You find the most amazing things, Janet! Hannah sounds like a woman who was not afraid to show her strength, and during that era she would have been ostracized for it. So to leave a man who valued that was quite courageous. I'll have to look for her story...after I finish reading yours, of course!

7:10 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Ok, I'm going to have to order a pretty paper copy to go with my set...

8:40 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Fascinating post, Janet -- and I will have to order my copy of your new release ASAP. And as to the rather bizarre relationship you describe in your post I, for one, am even more intrigued by the errant (or aberrant) behavior of the actual subcultures of the Victorian era than by the paranormal inventions of the day -- though good writing will always win me over.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

"the line is ending"

I hadn't heard about that! Why's it ending?

3:36 AM  

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