normal work: victorian-era domestic d/s

Wow. It’s been a week since I last wrote. Yikes! For a while in there, I was able to post nearly every day. This was due to a combo of spending a lot of time alone (where I was staying in San Francisco) and a lot of time in situations of high intellectual stimulation (like, say, two leather conferences and about a dozen additional kinky workshops of various descriptions). Now I’m back at home, and all of a sudden I’m doing things like starting a kinky book club (whee!), hosting a sexy gift exchange (because it’s much funner to see people give each other gifts than have them all go to only the birthday girl), teaching a fisting workshop (to a group made up in the majority of male tops – very interesting!) and spending some long-awaited time with Boi M, who filled the house with flowers for my homecoming. What a sweetie!

The next few weeks will be very full indeed, which is a bit of a pain because I currently have a list of… ummm… 25 posts on my write-about-it list, and I’m not sure how fast I’ll get to ’em! 

In the meantime, though, just a quick one.

Today, Boi M and I checked out an exhibition at Toronto’s Gallery 44 (401 Richmond St. W), entitled “Normal Work.” The exhibition itself is intriguing, but don’t expect huge prints of hot naked people or anything. Rather, you’ll see a range of tiny photographs of a woman named Hannah Cullwick, taken from the archived personal collection of Arthur Munby. Cullwick was a Victorian-era woman with a serious fetish for domestic servitude, and Munby was her “Massa.” You’ll also see excerpts of her diary on microfiche, and a short film also entitled Normal Work created by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz that’s inspired by Cullwick’s life.

Hannah Cullwick had a lifelong relationship with Munby, to whom she dedicated her life and her service. In the book Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context, Anne McClintock writes,

“Cullwick and Munby filled their lives with the theatrical paraphernalia of S/M: boots, chains, padlocks, leather, blindfolds, straps, constumes, scripts and photographs – some of them semi-pornographic. Their games included a variety of fetish rituals: transvestism, bondage, foot and leather fetishism, hand fetishism, washing rituals, infantilism, animalism and voyeurism.”

In the brochure for the Gallery 44 exhibition, Stephanie Rogerson writes:

“(Cullwick) had a lifelong revulsion of leisure and wealth that is stated in simple terms in a letter to Munby, ‘I will be your servant to my life’s end… and I hope, you’ll never take me out again as a lady. It makes me miserable and I feel so useless and idle…'”

Really the exhibition is just enough to make me want to devour McClintock’s entire book immediately, or at least the 70-odd-page chapter that deals with this particular couple. Perhaps I’ll have more in-depth reflections on the lives of Cullwick and Munby once I’ve done so; truly the show only left me feeling like I needed a lot more. I mean, how often do you come across the diaries of an explicitly D/s couple dating back over 150 years? Cullwick wore a locked chain around her neck and a leather band on one wrist as symbols of her servitude. This couple consciously played with the pleasures of power exchange and took the time to record it. On top of that, their records are one of the rare examples of work about fetishized domestic servitude I’ve seen that isn’t either a work of pure fantasy (I mean literally fantasy, as in Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace series) or a rather ponderous, pompous (and of course, poorly edited) book produced by one of the rare real-life practitioners and made available for public consumption. (I won’t name titles here, they’d really be a waste of your time.)

In the photos, we see Hannah Cullwick dressed as a high-class lady, as a man, as a black slave, and as a female domestic labourer – and it’s hard to tell which ones were “real” and which ones not. In truth it felt to me like all of these faces and outfits had a great deal of truth in them, and were perhaps simply theatrical exaggerations of the various aspects of her daily existence. Certainly her cross(?)-dressing traverses the challenging lines of race, class and gender in ways that are particularly mind-blowing considering historical context. This photographs and diary are rich in food for thought, especially when taken in combination with the contemporary film that does an excellent job of recontextualizing and unashamedly pointing out the deep queerness in the concepts Cullwick lived out.

This is one show that delivers a shot of intensity straight to the brain. I only wish there were more contextual information provided in the gallery somehow – but if you’re curious, just get your hands on a copy of McClintock’s book and I’m sure you’ll be satisfied. Or at least as satisfied as you’re likely to get for the moment. Truly, Cullwick is worthy of an in-depth biography, plus perhaps a play or a film about her life. I’m not gonna be the one to write it, but if someone does, I’m all over it!

The show is on until May 31, so really, don’t miss it.

Oh, and if you want further brain food, check out the Inside Out film festival (May 15-25) and the related Queer Here Queer Now film mini-symposium (May 17-18). Inside Out is sponsoring the “Normal Work’ exhibit, as well as the symposium, in case you were wondering about the connection – but even if they weren’t, I’d recommend both the festival and the symposium. Yum. Queer films. Kinky exhibits. Geeky queer film talks. Life is good for a sex geek these days! Even when I’m not hanging out in California.

9 thoughts on “normal work: victorian-era domestic d/s

  1. Great post as always and I was so glad you were back! Don’t you feel missed? 🙂 The exhibit sounded wonderful!


  2. Ever since I started reading in depth about Munby and Cullwick, I’ve wondered why they aren’t better known in the BDSM world. They are truly our ancestors.

    There are a number of books on them, though some seem a bit squeamish about the fetishistic aspects of their relationship. In addition to McClintock’s “Imperial Leather”, there’s Barry Reay’s “Watching Hannah” and Diane Atkinson’s “Love and Dirt”. If you hunt around, there are some compilations of their diaries too.

  3. Yes, welcome back, Sex Geek – I’m glad you’re posting again! I’d also never heard of Cullwick and Munby. Wikipedia tells us that Cullwick was a devoted bootblack (actually, Wikipedia used different words …). *sigh*. That luscious tidbit sent me scurrying to my portable shoe-shine stand repeatedly yesterday to continue developing my vegan bootblacking recipes and skills. See why we miss your posts so much? They inspire socially beneficial activity!

    Why have the nonWordPress people all suddenly been assigned weird Amish quilt snowflake avatars, by the way? I’m not sure how I feel about being a snowflake. I might melt. It makes me anxious.

  4. First I heard about this couple, but will be looking into it through something other then Wiki (sorry, to many issues for me with Wiki).

  5. Welcome back! The party on Saturday night was much fun, and I’m only sorry that we weren’t able to stay longer.

    I was wandering around the apartment this morning in a daze, looking for something to read. I think that I’ll be picking up McClintock tonight when I get home.

  6. So happy you posted about this, Andrea!
    I’m looking forward to going to the exhibit! Reading that chapter in McClintock’s book (almost a year ago now), clarified much about BDSM for me… and I’m surprised that Culwick and Munby aren’t talked about more often.
    Understanding that the couple’s fetishes often challenged power structures of the time (ie: colonial ‘race’ relations, class divisions, etc) makes me wonder, and want to know more, about the historical origins of many modern-day festishes. especially since i had heard somewhere that BDSM is predominantly a Western phenomenon…
    hmmm.. tangential thoughts and unresolved ponderings.

  7. joe – Thanks for the warm welcome back! 🙂

    Peter – Ooohhhh. Book titles. Dude, you rock. Any chance you might have done some of that digging around for diaries and have other titles to recommend? C’mon… feeeeed me! 😉

    medici – Bootblacking is socially beneficial? Guess it depends on what society you’re talking about. Count me in! Yes, Cullwick was a devoted bootblack, and took great fetishistic pleasure in counting, with Munby, how many pairs of boots per month she cleaned and polished. Sometimes it numbered in the hundreds. Wow.

    Travis – enjoy your search!

    Neeuqdrazil – It was lovely to see you. Enjoy the read. I certainly plan to do the same sometime very soon.

    Openthebox (and Peter) – It is a bit odd that we haven’t looked to them for more inspiration, but it appears that may be slowly changing. Cullwick and Munby definitely did some pretty sound challenging of social mores on numerous fronts, not all of them comfortable for me to watch but all of them highly intriguing.

    It is worth mentioning that BDSM as it stands is, from what I know and from various survey data, a predominantly, though not exclusively, Western (including white European) thing, but that’s specific to the formal, public BDSM community and culture – sexual practices involving power exchange, pain, servitude, bondage and so forth are simply human. Of course the larger culture has played a major role in shaping the ways that kink community has developed, through everything from social institutions (church, military, …) to law to literature to artistic imagery to commerce (sex trade, porn, fashion…), and predictably affected the community’s demographics as well, but let’s not confuse that with the ability to feel an appetite for kinky sex and pursue that appetite. 🙂

  8. How fascinating! I recently read Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders which goes a fair amount of depth into the expectations and realities of the interactions between middle to upper class Victorians and their servants.

    The book repeatedly referenced the writings of this couple as a primary source in a completely non sexual manner. The closest she comes to referencing it is in stating that Munby had a particular “fixation” with working class women. This makes me wonder however how representative the attitudes of this couple really are of the prevailing feelings of the time.

  9. The two main compilations of their diaries are “Munby: Man of Two Worlds” edited by Derek Hudson, and “The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick”, edited by Liz Stanley. Both are fairly old and obscure. but there are copies floating around. Diane Atkinson’s “Love and Dirt” is more recent, but it’s a bit squeamish about the kinky aspects of their relationship.

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