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 …

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