"THE SOOT was thick all round, and soft and warm and i lay in it and fetched a shower or two down wi my arms, and it trickl'd over like a bath -- i stopped in the chimney and thought about Massa and how he'd enjoy seein me when i got down. . . . Massa wrote after and said at the very time i was in the chimney he was at a ball, and among ladies with white necks and arms and all so grand, and how he look'd at them and thought of me."

The writer was Hannah Cullwick, a maid of all work; Massa was A. J. Munby, a London barrister; the time was the 1850s. What was she doing sweeping the chimney while he was dancing with heiresses, and why were they thinking of each other? The curious answer lies in a society twice divided, between those who labored and those who governed, and, in the ruling calss, between men and women, separately educated and steeped in illusions about femal passivity. The two wolrds met in bed, of course: Gentlemen routinely slept with servants and prostitutes; they didn't marry them. Munby, however, after a 19-year affair, did marry hannah, though to the world he remained a bachelor, she his servant, whom he sometimes secretly dressed like a lady to be photographed or trotted off in this disguise to France, where her accent couldn't betray them.

Munby, whose notebooks and photograph collection are the source for Michael Hiley's excellent Victorian Working Women , was one of those energetically obsessed Victorians; strapping women turned him on. A brawny bare forearm like Hannah's, a sturdy leg, a foot shod in iron-tipped clogs, a face burned by wind and sun were infinitely more seductive to him than the "sumptuous swan-like beings" in 30-yard ball gowns he danced with at night. By day he avidly studied dustwomen who cleaned the streets and gutters, milkmaids with 50 quarts of milk hung on a yoke across their shoulders, maids of all work like Hannah who cleaned grates, emptied slops and polished boots. For 50 years Munby watched and in his diary recorded the way these women looked, dressed and talked; he hired photographers to take their pictures. Yet he cared little about other members of the vast laboring force: men, children and sedentary women, such as those who sewed themselves blind making the ball gowns he so often clasped. His record of female manual laborers is obsessively narrow, but it's sharp-focused.

He traveled far afield to observe "splended lasses" loading wagons of coal outside Yorkshire mines, dressed in the same trousers they had worn when they crawled on all fours dragging coal wagons down in the mines before a law forbade it -- not so much to stop unduly hard labor as the "degradation" of women in male clothing. The pit girls retained their pants but missed their work down below. A striking beauty who had worked like a "mere quadruped" told him: "I liked it!"

In Belgium he found women still working down the mines, though encumbered by skirts. In Wales he visted brickworks and coke ovens worked by women, blast furnaces where they broke ironstone with great hammers for 12 hours at a time, "all healthy and robust and civil." On the Yorkshire coast he befriended fishergirls who gathered mussels and limpets for bait, filling eight large baskets a day. To get at bait uncovered at low tide below 200-foot cliffs they fastened a rope at the top and slid down, hauling themselves up again hand over hand with loaded baskets. One of these "girls," at 61, confessed she was "getting past this work." Photographs show another, Sally Mainprize, skirt tied up around her knees like breeches, a basket of bait balanced on her head. Munby's description of her descending suggests it's self-congratulatory to suppose life was hell before working hours, wages, and acceptable risks were legislated. Spitting on her hands (vulgar creature!) and rubbing them together, she firmly grasped the rope . . . and stepped over the edge. Down she went, light and easy as a sailor . . . sticking her toes into any crevice of the chalk wall, swinging by the rope from point to point, or quietly dropping, hand under hand, till she saw herself near the bottom; then, springing backward . . . with a bound, she lighted firm on her feet." The same heady breath of freedom and achievement aerates his description of a trapeze artist; "She leaped into the air, and in leaping, left the ropes that swung her, and dashed through the two hoops, and was seen hanging in the arms of her mate, grasping his body, her face against his breast."

Munby seems to have been oblivious of the sexual allure of his lifework. He notes how the girls laughed when he appeared, and called him "The Inspector." In London he was suspected of being Jack the Ripper, but he remained an innocent, appalled when a fishergirl propositoned him. Bemused by what he called "suggestive contrasts," he carried in his pocket twin photos of Hannah, dressed as a lady and as a naked chimney sweep, seated on the floor, hands chained, next to a man's shod foot -- his.

The girls he sought out were the lucky ones among the Victorian laboring population: robust, proud of their physical skills; lucky, even enviable, compared to their descendants operating computers in rooms without windows or weather. This handsome book's perceptive text is illustrated by extracts from Munby's diaries and Hannah's, by his able drawings, and by hypnotizing photographs of women in their working gear, powerful and easy, some with fine, haunting faces. As for the maids of all work, they are a bevy of beauties no concupiscent employer could resist.

There were servents aplenty, over 100, in the house in Delhi where Emily Metcalfe, the diarist of The Golden Calm , was born in 1831. This excess owed not so much to British ostentation as to the Indian caste system that forbade a man to do any but his own work. Thus Emily describes her father, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, Delhi Resident from 1813 to 1853, walking to his carriage: "He passed through a row of servants on his way to it -- one holding his hat, another his gold-headed cane, and another his despatch box." When he was displeased with a servant's performance, he sent for his kid gloves on a silver salver, drew them on, and sharply pinched the offender's ear.

According to custom, the Metcalfe children were sent home to England to be schooled. Emily left her parents at five, not returning until 12 years later. Her memories of this childhood are a series of bright fragments dictated by an old woman in the next century. There was the long trip from Delhi to London by palanquin, barge, and ship; posters advertising The Pickwick Papers ; the dress with an orange twirligig pattern worn by Mrs. Umphelby, a lady in whose care she was left. She remembered, shuddering, a desperate series of surgical operations, without anesthesia, to remove a vascular tumor from her neck, and a carroty-haired schoolmate named Eugenie Montijo, who grew up to be Empress of the French. "It has always been a puzzle to me how such very red hair lost its color and became the sandy color that afterwards became her so well."

In 1848 she returned to her father, sailing to Cairo, crossing the desert in a rattling van (no canal yet) to Suez, where she ate roast pigeon and macaroni before boarding the P&O steamer for Calcutta. There on the landing place she saw two ladies, one in black velvet, the other in red, "who were pointed out to me as Mrs. Cameron and Mrs. Jackson . . . daughters of Mr. Pattle." The editor of Emily's diary, a novelist also born in India who continually butts into her narrative with banal comment, doesn't recognize the ladies, instead reproaching "naughty" Emily for hinting they were half-castes, since "Patle" is a common Hindu name. In fact, Mr. Pattle, an English rogue resident in India, was father of the famous Pattle girls, only one of whom, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, was less than beautiful. Mrs. Jackson, her sister in red, was to be Virginia Woolf's grandmother.

Emily was in raptures back in her father's palatial residence in Delhi, where a whole room was devoted to Napoleonic relics and the saucepans were of solid silver. She describes his leisurely day in loving detail: swimming bath before breakfast, hookah after (its gurgle still murmured in the old lady's ears) a brief visit to the office, and after dinner marching off to bed, flinging his neck-cloth and coat on the floor to be picked up by the appropriate servants.

Sir Thomas had 25,000 books and nearly as many pictures, most later destroyed, like his superb house, in the Mutiny of 1857. The special charm of this book is its facsimile pages from his "Delhie Book," a scrapbook of minatures of famous buildings and ceremonies by Moghul artists, with explanations in his flowing handwriting and the marks of many dirty thumbs that turned the original's pages. Father and daughter provide dream-like glimpses of Empire before anyone guessed the cost.