Before “The Secretary,” Hannah Cullwick was “The Maid”

secmaidCullwick claimed to be able to tell where her husband had been by the taste of his boots. Kathryn Hughes reviews Love and Dirt in the Guardian:

The secret marriage between minor man of letters Arthur Munby and his servant Hannah Cullwick has become one of the great set pieces of 19th-century social history. Whenever a case study is needed to show the sheer weirdness of Victorian men in the bedroom, the story of how the gentlemanly Munby stalked, caught and loved the huge, dirty Cullwick over a period of 40 years is pressed into play … At Munby’s direction, Cullwick produced thousands of pages of letters and memoir which told the strange story of how she came to spend 40 years in a sado-masochistic relationship where her greatest treat was to be allowed to lick her husband’s dirty boots (horse shit was her favourite relish).

Cullwick’s private name for Munby was “massa”, an uneasy term that looked back to her native Shropshire dialect and elided it with that of the negro slave whose blackness she replicated with soot, as much for her own pleasure as for his. Packed into those two syllables were all the social, sexual and racial inflections that made their connection so forbidden and so binding.

Ever since the Munby-Cullwick papers were opened in 1950 (Munby had bequeathed them to his alma mater, Trinity College, Cambridge, with strict instructions that they should be opened on the 77th anniversary of his marriage), they have been a source of fascination for social historians. Instead of experiencing their class difference as a problem to be solved, Munby and Cullwick made it the pearl around which their love coalesced and wrapped extra layers of meaning.

In the 19th century there must have been plenty of middle-class men who married servants (the evidence, naturally, is hard to find). But a few elocution lessons, a move to a new town and the determination to pass as a lady meant that plenty of Cinderellas were able to make the transformation (this, indeed, formed the plot of many a bad novel). The difference with Hannah Cullwick was that she did not have the slightest desire to rise in the world. On the rare occasions that she tried a position as a higher servant — as a parlourmaid or cook — she could hardly wait to get back to the cellar and have a really good scrub.

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