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Dirt

Dirt was a class issue through the 19th century. Dirt defined and was defined by class, and pervades the intersection between the real and the symbolic that characterises so much 19th century art and literature. 

The distinguishing characteristic of a lady was her white, unstained hands, and communications between servants and masters were controlled by rigid rules and conventions. In domestic terms the coal hole is the darkest and dirtiest place in the house. Maids handle the coal for fires, black the grates and endlessly scrub and sweep. When Tom the little chimney sweep (aged about eight), in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, gets lost among the chimneys of a great house and emerges in a pristine, snow-white bedroom where a golden-haired girl lies asleep, he catches sight of himself in a mirror, sees a “little, ugly, black, ragged figure with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth” and turns on it angrily. “What did such a little black ape want in that sweet young lady’s room?” He then realises that it is himself, and “for the first time in his life found out that he was dirty”(2000:26). Chased from the house he plunges into a stream to wash himself, drowns and becomes a water-baby. The questions of class and sexuality implicit in this fairy story haunt the strange case of Kingsley’s friend Arthur Munby, who has become famous for his photographs of pithead girls, incongruously posed in the plush surroundings of a photographer’s studio with carpet and panelling, often still grimy-faced, with their sieves, wheelbarrows, shovels and even piles of coal. Much has been made of Munby’s possible “mysophilia” – finding dirt sexually attractive - as well as his fetishistic attraction to the implements of female labour (see for example Stallybrass and White 1986:155f.). Munby’s wife, Hannah Collwick, like the pit women, took part in the studio sessions, posing as a “chimney sweep”, blackening herself “from head to foot” and crouching on the ground like a slave (Hudson 1974:133f.). There is, however, a theatrical character to her pose. She had seen Byron’s Sardanapalus as a girl and been much affected by Myrrha the slave-girl’s devotion to the king. A domestic servant, Collwick was as committed to loving someone above her class as Munby was to loving below his. It was impossible for them openly to be married, without Munby losing his place in society. Both for a time enjoyed the charade; intelligent and literate, she was quite capable of dressing up to go into society, though forced to wear gloves because her rough worn hands would immediately betray her. He was touched, even aroused seeing her in abject positions scrubbing the fender, “streaked and disfigured with soot and grime”, and both in their respective diaries describe her as being “in her dirt” (Hudson 1974:132). His inhibitions and her eventual refusal to switch sides and give up working led to them living apart: she could not bear the boredom of sitting in a drawing room all day, with white hands, doing nothing. DA