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An Odd Couple

Munby, Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby 1828-1910

by Derek Hudson
Gambit, 461 pp., $12.50

To his friends and acquaintances, who included such people as Rossetti, Ruskin, Swinburne, Thackeray, and Browning, Munby was a member of the professional upper middle class, a tall, handsome bachelor, a barrister (though he hated Law) who loved parties, the theater, the opera, was a member of the Athenaeum Club and the Society of Antiquities, and a gifted minor poet. From the examples of his work which Mr. Hudson gives us, I would say that he was at his best when his model was Clough and least successful when his model was Tennyson, a poet whom it is impossible to be influenced by: the result is always Tennyson and water.

His friends also knew that he had a strong social conscience, acquired at Cambridge under the influence of F.D. Maurice’s Christian Socialist Movement, that he was an unpaid teacher of Latin, first at the Working Men’s College and later at the Working Women’s College, and that he served on the Ecclesiastical Commission. Whether they knew that he was a skilled draftsman and an avid collector of photographs, though he did not take them himself, we don’t know. Given the subjects of his sketches and photographs, I should guess that they didn’t.

But of his taste in women they certainly hadn’t the remotest inkling. This seems to have been acquired in childhood.

This evening at nine we had prayers in the library as usual: my father sitting at the centre table & reading for the twentieth time one of those good sincere old sermons, full of the simple Calvinistic Protestantism of thirty years ago. I am on the sofa by my mother: at the far end of the room the servants sit in a row against the wall: last and lowest in rank, and next the door, sits Maggie the kitchenmaid. She is directly opposite me: let us observe what effect the good old sermon has on her. At first she sits bolt upright: her white cap is relieved against the paper on the wall; her smooth black hair is neatly combed behind her large red ears; her rosy wholesome face is bright & clean; she wears a brown plain “frock” and black apron; her ruddy hands lie folded in her lap. Her big round eyes are wide open, staring at nothing, or glancing sometimes with vague interest up at the busts on the top of the bookcases.

…Oh kitchen-Maggie! The long grave periods…of that excellent sermon, how little they are valued by your rustic mind! And so, perhaps, it is more or less with all of us. Yet do we think the reading of these sermons useless? Certainly not. The formal good they do may be small. Their value comes from the scenes they create and the associations they leave behind.

Had his friends heard rumors of his obsessive interest in colliery women, fisher-girls, milkwomen, female acrobats, they would probably have given it a cynical explanation. Prostitution in Victorian London was a major industry, which may be partly explained, perhaps, by the life-situation of the Victorian “lady.” Whereas the “gentlemen” had their work, either in the professions or, in the case of the gentry, in looking after their estates, their wives had nothing whatever to do except bear children. All the household work was done by servants and even their children were looked after by nannies and governesses. Their lives, however physically easy, must often have been psychologically difficult, for idleness seldom makes people either more intelligent or nicer. In Munby’s case, however, I am convinced that his interest was aesthetic rather than sexual. He would have agreed with Van Gogh, who wrote:

As far as I know there isn’t a single academy where one learns to draw a digger, a sower, a woman putting the kettle over the fire or a seamstress…. I think that, however correctly academic a figure may be, it will be superfluous, though it were by Ingres himself, when it lacks the essential modern note, the intimate character, the real action…. I ask you, do you know a single digger, a single sower, in the Old Dutch school? Did they ever try to paint “a laborer”? Did Velasquez try it in his water-carrier or types from the people? No. The figures in the pictures of the old master do not work.

And, on his side, Van Gogh would certainly have appreciated Munby’s drawings and photographs of brawny and sooty-faced working women.

In order that we should understand Munby’s character, Mr. Hudson was right, I’m sure, to print his many descriptions of chance and fleeting encounters with working-class girls both before and after his crucial encounter with Hannah Cullwick, but they are, to me at least, rather boring. What did interest me was the reaction of the women colliery workers in Lancashire to Lord Shaftesbury’s Act of 1842, forbidding the employment of women underground. Though in the long run this was, no doubt, a good thing, twelve years later it was still resented, not only by management but also by the women themselves. In the first place, in mining areas there were often no other jobs available, so that they were thrown out of work. In the second, they seem to have enjoyed working underground.

One told him she “liked it reet well—would like well to work below again—used to draw with belt and chain—liked it better than working up here.” Another agreed she had been “like a horse or a dog,” but said that surface work was harder “and we were warm in’t pit. I only wish I was at it again,” she added.

The crucial encounter in both their lives occurred on May 27, 1854, when Munby was twenty-five and Hannah had just turned twenty-one. She was born in Shifnal, Shropshire, the daughter of a saddler and a housemaid, and went to work at the age of eight. When they met she was the scullery maid to Lady Louisa Cotes, who was in London for the season. She had had a curious premonition:

…at tea one day i saw a man’s face clearly as could be in the fire…it was such a nice manly face with a moustache—i little thought i shd see such a face, but in 54 i did see it…. My brother had been to see me & i walked with him part of his way home—i’d my lilac frock—a blue spotted shawl & my black bonnet on, & an apron. When i had kiss’d Dick & turn’d again & was crossing for the back street on the way to Grosvenor St. a gentleman spoke to me, & i answer’d him—that was Massa’s face that i’d seen in the fire….

Munby’s account of their meeting runs as follows:

…she was brought to me, a surprise of all surprises, by Him who brought Eve to Adam…. A tall erect creature, with light firm step and noble bearing: her face had the features and expression of a high born lady, though the complexion was rosy & rustic, & the blue eyes innocent and childlike: her bare arms and hands were large and strong, and ruddy from the shoulder to the finger tips; but they were beautifully formed…

A robust hardworking peasant lass, with the marks of labour and servitude upon her everywhere: yet endowed with a grace and beauty, an obvious intelligence, that would have become a lady of the highest.

Such a combination I had dreamt of and sought for; but I have never seen it, save in her.

His photographs of her confirm this description. Unlike the colliery girls, she was slender, but her biceps measured thirteen and a half inches in circumference.

At first neither of them seems to have thought of marriage. As Hannah was to write after they did get married:

…i made my mind up that it was best & safest to be a slave to a gentleman, nor wife & equal to any vulgar man—still with the wish & determination to be independent by working in service and without the slightest hope o’ been rais’d in rank either in place or by being married.

At first one is tempted to classify her simply as a masochist, but the more one reads both her diaries and Munby’s, the more superficial and inadequate such a classification becomes. Hannah was evidently a person who took a craftsman’s pride in performing her lowly tasks as efficiently as possible.

How shamed ladies’d be to have hands & arms like mine, & how weak they’d be to do my work, & how shock’d to touch the dirty things even, what i black my whole hands with every day—yet such things must be done, & the lady’s’d be the first to cry out if they was nobody to do for ‘em—so the lowest work i think is honourable in itself and the poor drudge is honourable too providing her mind isn’t as coarse & low as her work is, & yet loving her dirty work too.

Such an attitude may have been commoner among Victorian servants than we are apt, today, to imagine. Their pay was meager, their work arduous and often dirty, but they knew that they were performing duties which were essential to the functioning of the society in which they lived, and to know that one is needed is always a source of psychological satisfaction. They must also have observed that many of their mistresses, for all their wealth and leisure, were bored and unhappy.

While they were “walking out,” a situation which lasted for nearly nineteen years, Munby and Hannah had to be very careful not to be seen together by anyone who might recognize them and would have immediately assumed that they were having an affair, which was not the case. Once, indeed, she was dismissed from a job because other servants had seen them together and reported the fact to her employer. And after their marriage, which had to be kept a secret from all except her relatives, when she came to live with Munby at Fig Tree Court, she had to play the role of a servant in front of guests and other occupants, one of whom was Asquith, and could only be a wife when she and Munby were alone. But she seems to have enjoyed this, not as a masochistic humiliation but as a game which it was fun to play as well as possible.

When do you have your dinner?” I thought it best to say, as she retired. “About one o’clock, Sir,” my wife answered. “Then perhaps you had better do the bedroom.” “Very well, Sir,” said she, quite gravely: and soon she reappeared with all her housemaid’s gear, and slid as quiet as a mouse behind our backs into the bedroom, and drew the curtain behind her but did not shut the door: for I knew that she was secretly enjoying the conversation, though I could hear her vigorously emptying slops and lustily making the bed. Peacock, however, took no more notice of her presence there than if she had been a dog: he continued talking, in his clever rambling way; pouring out miscellaneous learning antiquarian and philosophical, talking Spinoza and Berkeley, reading Kingsley’s poems aloud, reciting ballads of his own.

When he had gotten rid of Peacock, and they were alone together, Hannah said:

But as for him, he’ll go mad, with his talk about not trusting our senses, and the things we see not being real! How do I know it’s you that kiss me, or you I’ve loved these twenty years? Why, God gave us our senses, & if we can’t trust them, what can we trust?

They were married in 1873 when Munby was forty-four and Hannah was thirty-nine. Only her relatives were allowed to know. At first all went well, but in 1878 their relationship began to be difficult. For this I think Munby was largely to blame. The double life in Fig Tree Court no longer amused him. He had taken a cottage, Wheeler’s Farm in Pyrford, which was associated with another girl, Sarah Carter, with whom he had had a flirtation, which cannot have been pleasant for Hannah. He also seems to have wished he were again a bachelor: on one occasion he writes of the joys of being alone. Sex, it is clear, was never very important to him. He may well have been sexually impotent, for there were no children by the marriage.

Even had he wanted Hannah to live with him in Pyrford, it would have been impossible because in a small country community this would have meant social calls on the vicar and others, which would have been embarrassing. Though, as the photographs show, Hannah could look like a lady, she could not act like one or, probably, speak like one. She was highly intelligent, Munby had taught her French and to read aloud to him from the best literature, but it seems unlikely that he could have cured her Shropshire accent. At the same time Munby was unwilling to give up his social life. Hannah evidently felt both lonely and embittered. Munby’s diary for 1880 and 1881 contains no mention of her, and, though they probably corresponded, he kept none of her letters. In 1882, thank goodness, their relations improved, and in 1888 he rented her a cottage in Hadley, Shropshire, where he paid her frequent visits. In 1903, Hannah left Hadley and went to live in Shifnal where she had been born. In his diary for 1906, Munby describes the following scene.

I say, Massa,” she exclaimed, “what a good job, as I arena a lady! One thing, I should hate to be stuck up, an’ dress fine, an’ keep that nesh an’ prim, an’ talk affected…. But now, I can sweep an’ scour, an’ clean your boots, an’ clean grates, an’ get coals in, an’ all the jobs as I’ve always bin used to in service, an’ I can talk my own plain talk, an’ I can do everything for you—aye, an’ I can read out to you as well as any lady could!” And she threw her arms around him & kissed him.

Hannah died in 1909 and Munby in 1910.

If he were alive today, where could he look for emotional satisfaction? In his day, domestic servants were the largest employed class in London. Now only the very rich can afford any. Moreover, the replacement of coal stoves by gas and electric, the disappearance of the chamber pot, inventions like vacuum cleaners, washing-up machines, etc., have abolished all “dirty” work. I think Mr. Hudson is right when he says that the country today where Munby would feel most at home is Soviet Russia.

This book is the most fascinating private document of Victoriana to be published since Kilvert’s diaries. Mr. Hudson has done us a great service.

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