You Rang, Sir?: In Praise of Butlers
AS far as I know, I've never met a butler. Either they were before my time or are (if any still exist) above my social sphere.
The nearest, perhaps, I have come to a butler is in a remote region of a club in London, where I am permitted to stay as a member of another club in Edinburgh. It is tremendously convenient. But it is a place that appears not to have changed a lot since the 19th century. It's an all-male establishment and talking at breakfast is "not preferred."
During my latest stay I was given a distant room new to me. In a bathroom close by, there was a push button on the wall over the antique bathtub. The label under it read: VALET.
That one word brought home to me the actuality of a bygone world. It was like discovering the Easter bunny really existed. Unthinkingly I had imagined valets and butlers belonged exclusively to fiction and film, to P.G. Wodehouse and Hollywood, to historical soap operas and period whodunits. I could no more visualize summoning "my valet" while taking a bath (What for, anyway? To turn on the hot tap because the water had grown a trifle tepid?) than calling for the the fire brigade to turn off the gas stov e.
I didn't press the bell, just in case some gentleman's gentleman actually appeared, deferentially inquiring: "You rang, Sir?"
Of course a valet - in the best establishments - was quite different from a butler, just as a lady's maid was different from a housekeeper. It is truly difficult to grasp how many servants there were in wealthy houses, though period photographs of whole households posed on the lawn sometimes bear impressive witness.
On the other hand, as the entire servant class began to diminish in our century, the butler proved a hardy perennial, taking on ever more functions. He might even be simultaneously a valet.
The butler had in fact been growing in indispensibility since the Middle Ages. At that time he had been merely one important male functionary (though quite possibly of high birth) among many, connected chiefly with the "buttery," a storage place for beer, candles, and eventually general provisions. The word "butler," etymologists say, may come from "bottler." He rose in status and by the 19th century became chief male servant. In some Victorian houses he had an entire wing under his command. He was a sup ervisor. His room might command a view of the front driveway so he could dispatch a footman to presciently open the door before visitors had pulled the bell. He would make a special performance of announcing guests on great occasions - booming out the names as if he had known them from birth, though he had whisperingly ascertained them only a second before.
At dinner he stood behind his master's chair, overseeing. So superior was he that he could be responsible for hiring and firing lesser servants - which may be why he was one of the last to arrive at societal redundancy.
He looked after the silver. He was in charge of the safe. The lesser servants addressed him as "Mr." One lady's maid recorded that a butler's first name was "the least important thing about him." He could be a figure of awe to everyone, even his master and mistress. Probably he became such a character in plays, films, and novels because he was a living paradox: While remaining apparently obsequious towards his employers, he had an acute sense of his own grandeur which was not totally delusion.
As he has become less of a fact of life, the butler has retained his fascination as fiction. But as ever, fact can often be just as extraordinary: one surprisingly recent British royal butler, Peter Russell, mentioned in his 1982 autobiography that one of his duties was putting toothpaste on his master's toothbrush.
In the spirit of practical nostalgia, one or two latterday "butler's guides" have been published, with advice: like how to brush a felt hat, clean a chandelier, roll an umbrella, fold table napkins.
One ex-butler advises: "You must always have a shoehorn at the ready." If only more of us did! The world would be a better place, without doubt.
Ironing could be part of a butler or valet's job; so was an expertise in the folding and packing of clothes, using the essential ingredient of tissue paper. The shame I feel today, going through baggage checks at airports and having officials open my bags and rummage for explosives while actually discovering what a terrible packer I am, makes me super-aware that some essential ingredient has been lost to our culture. I've thrown everything in willy-nilly and the airport guard, repacking after his fruitle ss search, follows my example.
Not only did butlers iron trousers, they also ironed newspapers. I'm not clear why. Presumably it was to obviate uncalled-for folds perpetrated in transit and so make the paper that much more felicitous to handle at breakfast?
A butler's breakfast-time duty might also include bringing in the day's mail on a silver platter. That's style. If revived it might mitigate, to a degree, the sting of the electricity bill.
Clivedon, one of several grandiose and prestigious homes owned by Lord and Lady Astor, was run on traditional lines. They had a longstanding butler called Mr. Lee. He seems to have been no less remarkable than most fictional butlers. Rosina Harrison, Lady Astor's maid, says he was acknowledged by all as the greatest of butlers. She includes salient items of information about Mr. Lee in her autobiography. She recalls that one of his quirks of character was that he had little time for chauffeurs. She tells
how he dispatched one rapidly because he was being overfamiliar: He had told Mr. Lee to address him by his first name.
Like all good butlers, Mr. Lee was master of the grave and dignified expression. P.G. Wodehouse, chronicler and inventor of butler after butler in his stories, is always coming up with sentences like: "The butler increased the detached expression which good butlers wear on these occasions." Most butlers seem to have been consummate actors, which may be why so many great actors relish playing the part - think of Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Michael Horden (who can do the sheep-like apologetic cough like a
butler born), not to mention such archetypal favorites of the old film buffs as Eric Blore. Who cares if the role is minor and peripheral?
Butlers in life and on stage are in the perfect position to upstage everyone for that very reason. The only butler I have ever played (amateur dramatically that is) is Merriman in "The Importance of Being Earnest." He has little to say, and less to do - yet, in mischievous hands, I can assure you he will be watched while the main protagonists are ignored.
The part of Crichton in J. M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton" (1902) is a peach because he is the portrait of everything an old-fashioned butler should appear to be - until the characters all get shipwrecked on a remote island. Then he rapidly shows his true colors, becoming the natural leader and organizer of his band of useless aristocrats, who - naturally - turn into his servants. A crisp and funny play, this, with a social point altogether more radical than its good humor appears to suggest.
One of the magical feats of butlers is their capacity to vanish tactfully. The Astors' Lee knew when to disappear: He told Miss Harrison that in times of emotion a good servant finds a way to absent himself. One of Wodehouse's butlers performed the trick in another way: "Parker made no comment. He stood in the doorway, trying to look as like a piece of furniture as possible - which is the duty of a good butler."
Jeeves, Wodehouse's most famous manservant, wasn't strictly speaking a butler; he was a valet. But then - to the more or less endless admiration of his "master" Bertie Wooster - Jeeves combines all the virtues in one man. Bertie's paragraphs of tribute to the "Inimitable Jeeves" amount to high and comic poetry. Jeeves, too, could become invisible. In "Ring for Jeeves" is this observation: "In times of domestic crisis, Jeeves has the gift of creating the illusion that he is not there."
In fact, butlers as a race are such an evidently endless matter of fascination, that one wonders why society has allowed them to at last carry their vanishing tricks to the point of virtual extinction. It is a comment on us. We have rendered our world less subtle by banishing butlers.