The reading from Imperial Leather was dense but superbly fascinating. I find it interesting how the peculiarities of Munby and Cullwick seem to fit so perfectly into and illustrate so complexly, many of the aspects of the Victorian era. Not only did Munby’s needs and Cullwicks needs satisfy eachother’s like puzzle pieces, their oddities also illustrate the Victorian anxieties and disparities such as paid work versus unpaid work, the empire versus the domestic, male versus female, dominance versus subservience, clean versus dirty, the visible versus the invisible, as well as issues of class and race. Munby was fascinated not just with working class women’s work; what made it pleasurable was its stark contrast to the leisured ladies of the era. He was also enthralled by thinking he had masculine dominance over the life of Mary Cullwick. On the other hand, Cullwick played around with the ambiguous roles of gender, class, and race. She owned her own sexuality and was deeply committed to showing the value of her work in the home (remember her slave band) while so many middle class women of the day worked hard just to hide their labor. There is so much to be said about Munby and Cullwick and how what they did ties in with aspects of the Victorian era! What I have said is the very tip of the iceberg.
I also found the origin of the cult of domesticity interesting. It appears this cult sprang up from the need to define the middle class and from the Victorian need to rationalize and naturalize roles to different ‘types’ and ‘races.’ McClintock states, “The cult of domesticity was crucial in helping to fashion the identity of a large class of people.” The Victorian need to classify and rationalize everything seems on the verge of obsession. It leaves me wondering why the need for such meticulous documentation, rationalization and demarcation of boundaries? McClintock gives a nice answer and says that the rationality in the nineteenth century was a “single-minded dedication to the principles of capital accumulation for commercial expansion.” I suppose this reasoning makes a lot of sense since during the Victorian era Britain was becoming capitalistic and white men were defining the norms. Imperialism helped rationalize the domestic sphere into a ‘natural’ place for women.
I also found a cool website called “Women’s History Then & Now: A Feminist Overview of the Past Two Centuries.” It compares contemporary issues of domesticity and sexuality with those of the Victorian era. It’s light reading.