The Butler Does It
The butler, that quintessentially British figure of impeccable dignity, is the mainstay of the country manor, keeping it running smoothly upstairs and down. Lee Daniels’s The Butler, which chronicles a White House employee’s career, revealed that Americans have been notable butlers, too. With his starchy propriety and reserve, the manservant has also been a favorite fictional character: His overstuffed decorum is easily lampooned, while his obligatory unobtrusiveness has made him a murder mystery cliché.
Mr. Stevens, the butler protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, considers dignity the essence of his vocation. “Dignity,” he explains, “has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.” As an example, Stevens recalls the unflappable composure of a butler in India who finds a tiger crouched under the dining table, has the animal shot, and calmly announces, “Dinner will be served at the usual time, and I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence.”
Carson, the butler on the TV series Downton Abbey, is a stalwart of the same school. He is chagrined that he must have maids serve dinner when the footmen go off to World War I battlefields, and he asserts that “keeping up standards is the only way we can show the Germans we will not be beaten.” He maintains order even as the hierarchy begins crumbling and a mere solicitor becomes heir to the estate. Only his own past truly shatters Carson’s sense of decorum: When it’s revealed that he was once part of a stage act, the Cheerful Charlies, his shame is so great he offers his resignation.
No matter what goes awry in the household, Downton Abbey’s Carson remains a stickler for detail and correctness. As he tells a prospective employee, “You’re too tall to be a footman. No footman should be over six foot one.” A similar regimental precision prevails in the country-house saga Gosford Park, written by Julian Fellowes a decade before he created Downton. Cutlery is counted, polished and meticulously laid, and Jennings, the manor’s butler, coolly informs a visiting American valet that belowstairs servants are addressed by their masters’ names.
But the sense of order, like the British class system, is fraying around the edges. In both productions Maggie Smith, who plays essentially the same acerbic aging aristocrat, serves as a Greek chorus trumpeting transgressions. At Downton Abbey, Carson soldiers on despite such indignities as an American guest orchestrating a potluck supper and a daughter of the house eloping with the chauffeur. Things are decidedly out of hand at Gosford Park, where the master of the house has been murdered, suspects abound upstairs and down, and Jennings drinks himself into a stupor. The housekeeper quietly tucks him into bed before anyone sees him, assuring that nothing will disrupt the appearance of orderly service.
In The Remains of the Day, Stevens has overseen the home of Lord Darlington for most of his career. He chooses not to acknowledge that his boss is a Nazi sympathizer, even when he must fire two Jewish housemaids at Darlington’s insistence and orchestrate lavish house parties for his fascist friends. Later in life Stevens admits he may have been wrong in his acceptance of Darlington’s politics. Yet he maintains it is “not possible to adopt…a critical attitude towards an employer and…provide good service.”
Gosford Park’s servants are not nearly as circumspect about their master, Sir William McCordle. The cook describes him as a “hard-hearted randy old sod.” That’s the least of it: McCordle has repeatedly impregnated young women and forced them to give up their babies; some of these women have found refuge on the Gosford Park staff. Jennings, McCordle’s head butler, also turns a blind eye to his employer’s shortcomings—not in the interest of being a good servant, like Stevens, but because he has some skeletons in his own closet. Having avoided military service in World War I and gone to prison as a consequence, he’s motivated as much by shame as professionalism.
In The Remains of the Day while the dim-witted Lord Darlington and his fellow fascists plot to forge an alliance between England and Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Stevens ignores their wrongheadedness and racism while ensuring their needs are met. When asked his opinion of international affairs, Stevens realizes he is meant to be the butt of a joke and gives the answer required to fulfill that role: “I’m very sorry, sir, but I am unable to assist in this matter.” But Stevens isn’t just playing a part, he has chosen to limit his emotional participation in all aspects of life.
In 1952 Eugene Allen went to work in the White House kitchen; when he retired in 1986, he was head butler. His career during this event-filled time in American history, spanning eight presidencies, is chronicled, in fictional form, in The Butler. Allen was a professional who took pride in his post, but unlike Stevens he was also a man of his times: He met Dr. Martin Luther King, was honored to be working for Lyndon Johnson when he signed the civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965, and was a guest at Barack Obama’s 2009 swearing-in as president.
In the novels and short stories of P.G. Wodehouse, the valet Jeeves concocts hangover remedies for his young employer, Bertie Wooster, advises him against wearing inappropriate clothing, and gets him out of jams, all the while showing masterful reserve. A typical exchange between the two runs:
“You really dislike them?”
“All right, then. Very well. Say no more. You may burn them.”
“Thank you very much, sir. I have already done so.”
The Remains of the Day seems almost a textbook for proper butlering, but Kazuo Ishiguro admits Jeeves and various movie manservants were a big influence for his character Stevens: “They were amusing in a subtle way. It wasn’t slapstick humor. There was some pathos in the way they would come out with a dry line for something that would normally require a more frantic expression. And Jeeves is the pinnacle of that.” Ishiguro pushes that restraint to unnatural extremes, as when Stevens oversees a dinner while his father, a retired servant, is upstairs dying. In sublimating his emotions—and on a larger, more poignant scale, squandering his life for his career—Stevens perfectly fulfills his role as butler.
In the 1981 film Arthur, John Gielgud plays Hobson, a butler who delivers deliciously snide and often obscene ripostes in a posh British accent. When his young employer, Arthur (Dudley Moore), asks him, “Hobson, do you know the worst part…of being me?,” he answers, “I should imagine your breath.” Arthur asks Hobson to run a bath for him. The butler replies, “It’s what I live for,” then adds, “Perhaps you’d like me to come in there and wash your dick for you. You little shit.”
Their repartee is often a lewd version of the typical exchanges between Jeeves and the hapless Bertie Wooster. Both Hobson and Jeeves are their masters’ moral and intellectual superiors, their consciences and guides. Voices of sanity, embellished with good intentions, they are part of a tradition that includes the vagrant-turned-servant who sets a family straight in the 1936 film My Man Godfrey. Butlers are also a stock comic character, spoofed by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein (1974), with the hunchbacked butler Igor (“walk this way”), and parodied in the Addams Family TV show (1964–1966), in which Lurch shambles in whenever the gong sounds to deadpan in a deeply resonant baritone, “You rang?”
Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) says of her position as Gosford Park’s housekeeper: “I’m the perfect servant. When they’re hungry, food is ready. When they’re tired, a bed. I know before they know… I’m the perfect servant. I have no life.” In a more cynical vein, the head maid, Elsie, wonders, “Why do we spend our time living through them? Look at poor old Lewis [a lady’s maid]. If her own mother had a heart attack, she’d think it was less important than one of Lady Sylvia’s farts.”
It’s hard to imagine Hobson, the chief servant in the Arthur films (played by John Gielgud in the 1981 original and Mirren in the deplorable 2011 remake) adapting an abject attitude. Gielgud’s Hobson seems sharp-tongued enough to hold his own upstairs at Gosford Park with the Countess of Trentham. With his master, he engages in the repartee of the servants’ hall. But he expresses the depth of his devotion when he slaps Arthur and says, “You spoiled little bastard! You’re a man who has everything, haven’t you, but that’s not enough. You feel unloved, Arthur, welcome to the world. Everyone is unloved. Now stop feeling sorry for yourself. And incidentally, I love you.”