Sunday, 12 January 2014

Hannah Cullwick: Victorian Fetishists of the "Filthy" Working Class Body

(Reblogged from summer 2012)
At the turn of the century a wooden box was bequeathed to the British museum with special instructions that it not be opened until 1950; the British Museum turned it down and the box was taken into possession by the Trinity College Library archives. This box  was called "The Munby Box"; it contained hundreds of photographs by Arthur Munby, a wealthy upper-class Victorian philanthropist with a passion for collecting and archiving images of a particular type of body: the broad-shouldered, hard-muscled physiognomy of the working class woman. He "collected" washerwomen, female miners, milkmaids, androgenous acrobats, and women who suffered facial disfigurements - Barry Reay called him a "collector of noseless women". However, most of the photographs are of a woman called Hannah Cullwick, a working class servant who is photographed in a multitude of guises: cross-dressed as a gentleman and a chimney sweep, as a peasant in front of a field scene back drop, as a lady in a fine clothing and as Mary Magdalene, half stripped and praying with head and hands lifted upwards.

After meeting in 1854, Hannah Cullwick and Arthur Munby  would carry out an illicit courtship that would last over thirty six years. This usual pairing was made even stranger by the fact that throughout these years the two carried out collaborative performances of perversions and fetishistic master/slave role-playing that centred on Munby's fantasies of Cullwick's strong labourer's body in "her dirt". In fact, this was not just "playing" roles but accentuating and making explicit the class divide they were already in: he as the master photographer, she  as the submissive subject of changing forms, devised in part by the two of them. They also both wrote diaries and letters which the other would read. Even after they were married in 1873, nearly twenty years after beginning their secret relationship, they lived separate lives: Cullwick remained a housemaid feeling uncomfortable in the costumes of an upper-class lady. Cullwick continued to pursue a life that was connected to Munby's but also holding onto her separate independence with her own income as a maidservant. After a brief stint of living together, Cullwick got another job away from the city. But the project of their relationship continued with letters, stories and diary entries being sent back and forth.

Part of a servant's job was to become invisible, to go about the daily business of scrubbing dirt, getting mucky and covered in filth while at the same time remaining unobtrusive and unseen by one's employers. In a diary entry Cullwick explains the way that the working servant's body is fashioned by the filthy jobs they perform : "My face was dirty (I'd been cleaning the dirty scullery out) & my arms black'd & my hands look'd swell'd & red, & begrimed with dirt - grener'd as we say in Shropshire. That is, the cracks in our hands ingrain'd with black lead [used to clean grates around stoves, passage ways etc.] & that, so that even scrubbing will not fetch it out, & in cold frosty weather one dare not brush them. I had not worn gloves for years then, not even to see ladies in, so I was without gloves to the lady at Mr Clark's that day. I saw Mrs Green and her daughter look hard at my red hands."

There is shame inherent in the inescapable way that class here is written onto the body of the working class woman. Due to the strenuous labour the body is put under, the working class body is outwardly, visibly, one that works, moves, lifts, scrubs, endures strain so that no matter what clothes are put on, the body is inscribed as poor. This is in marked contrast to the refined leisured body of the middle and upper classes. John Berger's wonderful little essay The Suit and the Photograph points out that the modern suit was designed and intended for a body that does not partake in physical work: the tailored suit is restrictive, form-fitting, meant for the leisured body of a middle class office clerk etc. Arthur Munby, as a Victorian gentlemen of well fitting suits and philanthropic pursuits, did not have a body that had experienced manual labour: perhaps this goes some small way to explain his fascination with the bodies of the working class Other.

Munby, unlike most of his class, did not want the signifiers of class to be made invisible (not that he was in any way interested in equality); in fact, he relished and fetishised these markers of class. Part of the pleasure he found in Cullwick, and subsequently passed on to her, was not be be ashamed of her filthy work and of getting dirty, but to be proud of it, to enjoy and display it. Cullwick's strong body, grimy after fourteen hours of work, was filthy; this excited Munby, and when visiting  her he would ask if Cullwick would stay "in her dirt" for him. His photographs reveal he was particularly interested in her hands and arms as these parts gave the most visible evidence of  doing "a hard day's work", so in many of Munby's pictures, hands and arms are a central focus. In the second and third pictures here, dressed as a chimney sweep covered in soot, Cullwick's strong, large, shapely arms are displayed to full effect. In the picture left, Cullwick is actually lifting her sleeve to exhibit her muscles: as Carol Mavor remarks, "she wore her thirteen-and-one-half-inch biceps as proudly as she wore her dirt".

Interestingly in the first picture in which Cullwick is attempting to "pass" for a gentleman, her hands are hidden from view: a "true" gentleman would have the delicate manicured hands of someone who did not use their hands to earn a living, therefore Cullwick's calluses and the largeness of her hands would give away her class origins. As well as exhibiting Cullwick's strong worker's body in various poses, Munby and Cullwick were interested in class role-play and masquerade. As well a spot of gender-bending masquerade as a gentlemen, Cullwick also costumed herself in ladies' finery - again, to see if she could pass. But, as in the case with the suit and hidden hands, her body seemed to rebel from the restricting confines of these classed clothes, to reveal itself as Other to the dainty idealisation of waifish consumptive Victorian femininity - her body being too large and muscular to successfully carry off posing as a lady. Yet for Munby the vision of a powerfully strong working class body bursting out of flimsy ladies' dresses was itself an exciting frisson of ill-fitting worlds colliding.

Throughout their long relationship, despite its very unconventionalness, Munby and Cullwick had very gendered and classed power relations within their fantasy and sexual lives together. He would be master and she slave. In her diary, Cullwick (who is also writing this passage to Munby as audience) describes how she found a dog collar that she would sometimes wear under clothes to remind herself that she was Munby's (love) slave/object of desire: "Valentines day was while I was there & I slipp'd out in my dirt to get one for Massa. It took me a few minutes to select one. I found one - a dog with a chain round his neck & thought it fit for me." Desire is an difficult thing: can it be said that Cullwick found her sexuality and empowerment through subservience to a man that fetishised filth and a body under duress? Can one say that Cullwick's desire was false if she desired something that dehumanised her?

Unfortunately it is fair to say that having an upper-class lover that valued, and was attracted to, the vital body of a worker would give validation, pride and visibility to one whose class were forcibly treated as invisible. Yet there is something unnerving still in the power relations between Cullwick and Munby: is Cullwick desiring Munby's desire for her, or is she taking pleasure in her own sexuality? Either way, it is problematic; for in denying sexual agency to Cullwick, the assumption is then that, of course, she cannot also posses her own perversions. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick makes clear, there is no true, original or natural sexuality: "to some people, the nimbus of 'the sexual' seems scarcely to extend beyond the boundaries of discrete genital acts; to others, it enfolds them loosely or floats virtually free of them". This does not mean to say that Munby's fetishistic collection of feminine curiosities is off the hook, but that in the murky and frankly mucky realm of sexuality, Cullwick floats free of my grasp.

Illustrations:

Arthur Munby, Hannah Cullwick As a Gentlemen, 1862
Arthur Munby, Hannah Culwick, cross-dressed as a chimney sweep, 1862
Arthur Munby, Hannah Cullwick and "Female Masculinity", 1867

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