115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Working Class Self Expression through Text and Photographs: The Diary of Hannah Cullwick

Sarah MacDonald, Kent State University

I am proposing an examination focusing on domestic laborer Hannah Cullwick (1984), who composed a diary over 17 years from about 1854-1873.  My central questions are: Why would Cullwick have produced so much textual and photographic material and what can we learn about the Victorian working classes through this unique evidence. 

Proposal: 

I am proposing an examination focusing on domestic laborer Hannah Cullwick (1984), who composed a diary over 17 years from about 1854-1873. She wrote the diaries at the behest of her middle class lover Arthur Munby until their eventual marriage as Stanley notes in her Introduction to the text: “Hannah began writing her diary at Munby’s wish and in order to keep him in touch with her daily drudgery and other activities” (8). Cullwick also sat for a number of photographs both in her work cloths and in various costumes. My central questions are: Why would Cullwick have produced so much textual and photographic material and what can we learn about the Victorian working classes through this unique evidence. To answer these questions, I examine the link between Cullwick’s writing/photographs and Victorian ideology, focusing on work and class status, thereby illustrating the complexity of the text/photographs as a product of Cullwick’s needs as an author and in her relationship with Munby. The secret nature of Munby and Cullwick’s relationship made daily letters inconvenient due to the disparity in their status. However, Cullwick wrote daily entries in her diary for Munby. Such composition required a great deal of time commitment. Yet, she continued the daily task for 17 years until after their marriage, when she saw no use in them. As Liz Stanley (1984) notes in her introduction to Cullwick’s diary, “Her diaries ended, and she made it clear that there would be no more because the conditions that gave them point and purpose no longer existed” (24). Cullwick’s purpose in writing and sitting for the photgraphs, according to Stanley, was to encourage the playacting both Cullwick and Munby enjoyed. Based on Stanley’s argument, I suggest that, as Cullwick gained increasing control of the text, she shifted the focus from his needs to hers. As such, she could no longer concentrate solely on Munby’s pleasure in reading about her labor and instead emphasized her needs as an autonomous laborer. The photographs work in much the same way. While it could seem that Cullwick only sat for the photographs for Munby’s pleasure, they are actually evidence of her control of her relationship and body. This article, then, considers her relationship with Munby, the dynamics of their long-term union, and Victorian ideology to argue that the diaries/photographs provided one of the few opportunities for unhindered communication between Cullwick and Munby that was the primary motivation for the diaries.  Cullwick was able to present her preferred subjectivity through the medium of text and photos. As such, these pieces allow us to not only see Cullwick’s persona but how working class Victorians could utilize various mediums for personal expression.