Wife and servant are the same, but only differ in the name. – Lady Chudleigh
I’ve literally been meaning to write about this book for years — like since I first read it in a seminar in 1997. Although I’ve read lots of pretty kinky literature in classes, including Venus in Furs, this is one of the most interesting books on fetishes I’ve ever read. It’s called Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest by academic Anne McClintock.
What makes this book such a delight to the fetish reader? Not its prose, which isn’t as hard to get through as Foucault, but is definitely of the post-modern, post-colonial critical style. This isn’t meant as a complaint by the way, but more by way of a warning that you probably won’t want to buy this for pleasure reading unless you tend to read academic texts more generally.
There’s a lot of good stuff in the book on issues of race and fetish as well as images of imperialism in 19th century popular culture. But it’s Chapter 3: Race, Cross Dressing and the Cult of Domesticity that makes for the most amazing reading. It’s an account of the secret marriage of upper class, Cambridge graduate and barrister, Arthur Munby and serving woman Hannah Cullwick whom he met on the street. They had a secret romance and marriage (facts Arthur only revealed to his family a few weeks before his death) based, in part, on Munby’s fetishization of their class differences and her status as his “slave” (she wore a leather wrist band to denote her status as “owned” by him and a locked chain around her neck for which only he had the key as further proof of her bondage to him). He was especially fond of seeing her during and after she had labored — “in her dirt” (see image on the right) as he called it. Both Munby and Cullwick kept diaries of their experiences / relationship, which makes for detailed knowledge of their relationship.
This fetishizing of class and Cullwick’s servant status was immortalized by Munby who took contrasting photographs of Hannah dressed as a fine lady (her secret status by marriage) when they traveled together, as a serving woman and as a slave.
Cullwick was stunning as a model (I wish I could find more of the shots of her on-line). She posed for Munby cross-dressed as a boy, as a laborer and even as a gentleman of his own class. Their private games were of her slavery. She addressed him as “Massa,” knelt at his feet, licked his boots and washed his feet (again, we know this from their diaries which he donated to Cambridge though sadly the accounts of her “training” were removed).
One of the things I found quite striking as an account of fetishizing work was this passage:
…she would arrange to theatrically scrub the front doorsteps on her knees as Munby sauntered down the street, languidly swinging his cane… Cullwick visited Munby frequently “in her dirt” after a grueling day’s work, her clothes dank and filthy, her face deliberately blackened with boot polish, her hands red and raw; only to pose later that same evening freshly dressed as an upper-class lady in finery. They spent happy hours mulling over the ordeals of her workload, ritualistically counting and recounting the incredible number of boots she cleaned. (page 137)
With material like Munby’s photographs and diaries both left to work from, it’s not surprising that there are a number of books discussing the couple’s history. What I like about Imperial Leather is McClintock’s enlightened discussion of S/M in relation to the couple. She sees both its theater and the realities of power as distributed between the two people in this relationship. This means that unlike other works, Imperial Leather reads Cullwick not as a victim, but as an actor in her own slavery.
As McClintock writes (paraphrasing Foucault):
To argue that in S/M “whoever is the ‘master’ has the power and whoever is the slave has not,” is to read theater for reality; it is to play the world forward. The economy of S/M, however is the economy of conversion: master to slave, adult to baby, power to submission, man to woman, pain to pleasure, human to animal and back again…. S/M is a theater of transformation; it “plays the world backward.”
I wish I had time to write more about this, but will happily return to discussion of it should anyone be interested. And, maybe, even if no one but me is.