THIS is the strangest of Victorian love stories. Hannah Cullwick (1833-1909) was the daughter of a Shropshire housemaid and saddler. In Hannah, modesty developed into extreme humility. This was due to three things: she went to work at 8 years old and saw herself as a servant for life; in the words of the Victorian hymn, God Himself had "ordered her estate" and God did not wish her ever to become "proud" or "set up"; and because of her height and strength (131/2-inch biceps) she gloried in the toughest, dirtiest work -- scrubbing stone floors on her knees until they were damaged, sweeping chimneys, carrying heavy iron pots. The hardest work was considered the "lowest"; therefore handsome Hannah Cullwick was the lowest of the low.

At 21 Hannah was picked up in a London street by Arthur Munby, a curious literary friend of, among others, the painter Rossetti, though Munby cannot have admired the droopy white limbs of Pre-Raphaelite ladies. This "man of two worlds" was 25, a lawyer and civil servant who in his public leisure time lectured to the Working-Men's College; in his private leisure he arranged for toil-stained but healthy fishwives, pit brow girls and dust girls to be photographed, so that their strapping "beauty" might be preserved for posterity. In fact he had an obsession with female brawn and female blackness; what Hannah was taught to call proudly "my dirt."

For 18 years Hannah and Munby were sweethearts, Hannah earning her living as a maid-of-all-work with middle-class families (in London and south coast resorts), and "doing for" Munby also when she visited him. Their relations, Hannah was insistent, were absolutely "pure." On January 3, 1873, they married and lived together (though possibly not even now in a full physical sense that went beyond what Hannah called "petting") at Munby's chambers until, within a few years they had separated. Hannah returned to Shropshire, to be visited fairly regularly but at wide intervals by her husband. Why did they marry? Why did they separate?

Put briefly, each of them was faced by a dilemma that neither could solve under the conditions of matrimony. Hannah was prepared (both for religious and sexual reasons) to humiliate herself before her beloved in ways that today might seem masochistic. Not only did she wash his feet but also wash her face afterwards in the dirty water; not only black his boots but literally lick them first. She willingly "blacked up" for him, smearing her face and arms with black lead and oil. She calledhim "Massa" and wore his strap on her wrist, his padlock and chain round her neck as a sign of servitude. Nevertheless Stanley concludes, I think rightly, that masochism was not involved. Abasing oneself could be regarded as a Christian duty and privilege. Did not Christ wash the feet of His disciples, becoming their servant as well as their Master? (Hannah also washed the feet of an elderly lodger.) Both Hannah and Munby knelt and prayed for themselves and each other. Hannah accepted the social hierarchy, though not without difficulty. She noted in her diary that the upper classes had to bow to the royal family, just as the lower classes curtsied to the gentry. This was a comfort.

At the same time Hannah could not ignore the fact that she was a superior physical specimen to Munby and had not the slightest wish to be "a woman" (feminine), far less "a lady," with all their finicky "fiddle faddle" and delicacy that prevented them from mentioning such things as the bowels. She was nearly as tall as he, weighed a few pounds more and could carry him round the room and cuddle him in her muscular arms. After she secretly married him (although with some qualms), in what way was she "lower" than he? And yet he still made her call him "Sir" in public. She violently exploded over this ignominy in 1872 and again, it seems, in 1877. These passionate scenes gave Munby the chance to end an unworkable arrangement.

TURNING to Munby, he had no alternative but to marry her, since at 40 she was tired of moving around from place to place and wanted to live with and serve her master. She wished to continue on the old, unmarried terms, though in Munby's lodgings in the Inns of Court. Munby realized that, if once their situation were discovered by his colleagues, his reputation would be ruined. So they married.

Some critics have called their overall relationship sado-masochistic. Stanley denies it, again I think rightly. Munby loved Hannah's knees o feel like sandpaper in bed and the palms of her hands like leather; he would not allow her to wear gloves, a Victorian ''must." But there are no signs of whips, not even when Munby was being drawn along in a coal-wagon by Belgian women miners on all fours.

Munby's final dilemma was a function of his obsession. After the marriage he wanted Hannah to be both a lady and a drudge. He took her to France, for instance, as "Madame," but she "blacked up" for him at home. He kept various double photographs in which Hannah (and others) were shown with the filthy image opposite the fine one. He called them "Suggestive Contrasts." In one, Hannah as a plumed Gainsborough lady faces Hannah as a topless chimney sweep.

But it was impossible by now for Hannah to play-act to that extent. She could not put her alien feathers on a par with her soft warm soot. It would have been like My Fair Lady in reverse, as if Eliza Doolittle had been suddenly required by her professor to resume her cockney accent for half of her life. Hannah had sacrificed her gloves and all hopes of being an upper servant for Munby's sake.

There is just one area where I feel that Stanley's feminism may have prevented her from doing full justice to Hannah. As a good feminist, Stanley considers that Hannah was not really an "extraordinary" woman, as Munby's biographer Derek Hudson believes, but that unlike other working women she was encouraged to read and write, and did indeed record 19 years of her life in the Diaries. However, after I found that Munby had suggested Hannah should read Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe as well as Adam Bede and of course the Bible, I thought that "extraordinary" was too mild a word for her. I myself happened to be reading Clarissa Harlowe at the time -- all 2,000 closely written pages of it!

To appreciate these amazing Diaries of Victorian "below stairs" life to the full, one needs to treat them as part of a trilogy including Arthur Munby: Man of Two Worlds by Hudson and Victorian Working Women: Portraits from Life, Michael Hiley's edition of Munby's photographs. On that triple basis I would regard both Munby and Hannah as casualties of the Victorian social scene. Munby developed his voyeurism because he could not honorably look at the female thigh except as revealed in works of art or by working women in dirty trades. (The cancan he despised as "licensed strumpetry.")

Hannah originally felt unfitted, as I see it, to be an upper servant, giving orders to others, because of her own lost childhood. She had become a "little woman" at 8, in fact had scarcely been a child at all. As a result she feared all responsibility, including the responsibility of having children (''an anxiety") and found a partial substitute in her Massa.