Barry Reay, Watching Hannah: Sexuality, Horror and Bodily De-formation in Victorian England, London: Reaktion, 2002. Pp. 200. ,£22. ISBN 1-86189-119-9.
Archivists can get very cynical about researchers. Every year a number of users explore once more some group of papers already well-worked over by scholarship, while huge swathes of virgin archive lie untouched. This was a perhaps knee-jerk response at the first sight of Watching Hannah. Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, and their very strange cross-class relationship, have been the focus of much study in the thirty years since this was first revealed in Derek Hudson's Munby: Man of Two Worlds (1972).
Reay does engage with the previous scholarship, and discusses some of Munby's weirdnesses which have not been analysed by others, such as his fascination with facially deformed women. He includes as a Unique Selling Point his extensive use of sketches and photographs from the Munby collection. However, there does seem to be quite a bit of going over already trodden ground, and given the overall approach of looking at Munby being a voyeur there is a claustrophobic and airless feel about this book. This may be the point.
If Munby was representative of wider male preoccupations, it would have been nice to have a rather more explicit sense of this context. There seem to be insufficient links outwards from Munby into society at large. There are, certainly, problems in locating Munby. Reay claims that his obsessions were not unique, but only gives a rather cursory allusion to the strong strand of sexual voyeurism in the surveys of the Victorian social investigators. On the one hand it is conceded that Munby's blend of desires was truly peculiar but on the other posited that he was very much a man of his time (p. 171). His diaries and letters were the record of a carefully maintained secret life, not even made available to the limited audience of that other, very different, Secret Life,; that of 'Walter'. The only way in which Munby's obsessions might have impinged on the outer world (apart of course from the disadvantaged women who played such an important role in his life) was through his published poetry, but this does not seem to have made much impact in its day. Although Reay has managed to find a review of 'Ann Morgan's Love' (1896) in The Spectator, Munby's poetic effusions do not seem to have generated much audience feedback (not even from other panting devotees of muscular women with work-worn hands engaged in heavy menial toil). Were there any tropes in Victorian pornography which would resonate with Munbys preoccupations?
There are some curious omissions. Munby's eroticization of female masculinity and his fascination with gender transgression are extensively discussed. Yet it is odd that some other, better-known, manifestations of interest in gender incongruity in the late nineteenth century are not cited: for example the strapping Trilby (with her enormous feet) in Du Maurier's influential novel of that name, contrasted with her somewhat feminised, upper class, admirer, Little Billee. On the disjunction between the beauty of female figure and form tastefully arrayed and a face which is not beautiful (in the case of Harriet Langdon recounted by Reay, ravaged by lupus), there is the famous encounter in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1860) when Marian Halcombe turns from the window and the observer realises that in spite of her 'rare beauty' of form and 'unaffected grace', 'the lady is - ugly!' (and another masculinized female). While Munby was, obviously, enormously and obsessively interested in apparently unfeminine (and certainly unladylike) women, muscular, dirty, with horny hands, he also seems to have been constantly reifying their essential femininity. Was the image of the ideal feminine, as Reay claims, absent though powerfully invoked through contrast, or was his reiteration of the inner womanly qualities within the coarse exterior actually internalizing it in a rather more problematic way?
;Reay engages with contemporary cultural phenomena (e.g. Orlan's body modification, Halberstam's work on female masculinity) in his endeavours to further understanding of Munby's peculiarities. But in trying to elucidate the intricacies of the Munby/Cullwick relationship, surely accounts of dominance/submission and related phenomena within the modern fetish community would have been pertinent. Less so, perhaps, in terms of the simple enumeration of the physical manifestations (boots, chains, padlocks, leather, blindfolds, straps) as listed by McClintock (cited on p. 159), than in describing the psychological states, which approach altered consciousness, produced by their ritual deployment. More could have been said about the eroticization of the state of desiring rather than gratification which seems to have been central to Munby's practices. This was not a unique idiosyncrasy but a rather important theme in Victorian sexuality more generally.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London