Of footmen and fops (National Post, Nov. 22, 2002)



'Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on Earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility." This is Algernon on impertinent butlers in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Hilarious. Algernon's mildly uppity butler Lane isn't a patch on Paul Burrell, venal 21st century blabbermouth and traitor to his calling. And what would Wilde say to the shocking revelations of sexual predation below stairs amongst Prince Charles' personal staff?

The former dignity of elite domestic service is in full rout. Post-Burrell, can "character" ever again be a prerequisite for a butler's engagement?

Buttling's history stretches back centuries, but flourished in the 19th and early 20th century, when country-house culture reached its apogee, and the gentry and their servants, remote from city distractions, lived in symbiotic intimacy. We maintain a special fondness for that era. The recent movie Gosford Park captures the interdependency between servant and master, tellingly assigning the virtues of discipline and moral rigour to servants, dissolution and craven self-interest to the aristos. We can't get enough of that stuff. We lap up Agatha Christie's "cozy" Country House murders, Masterpiece Theatre's Upstairs Downstairs and, of course, P.G. Wodehouse's incomparable Jeeves. In these popular classics, servants provide the moral stability sadly lacking amongst their "betters," and as in the case of Maggie Smith's character's loyal maid in Gosford Park, they often save their employers from shameful exposure to public censure.

Wilde's ironic lament, like all "reversal" comedy, is, then, a sly form of homage to a real cultural icon. British literature is rife with lower-class characters who defend the uncluttered rubrics of nursery morality -- what Orwell would call "decency" -- while the aristocracy, corrupted by entitlements, greed and social/political ambition, accompany their romantic whims and egos into anti-social excesses.

Dickens famously romanticized the gentle decency and simple morality of the common man in contrast to the self-serving hypocrisy of the rich and powerful. Tolkien, a writer inspired by England's formative myths, recreated the prototypical moral servant in Samgee, Frodo's faithful-unto-death companion in Lord of the Rings.

The best example of the moral servant is the case of Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights is usually taught as a story of passion and unfulfilled love, but it is actually a more typically English tale of class envy and property lust. The wild Gothic setting and Brontë's overwrought adolescent imagination distract the reader from these motivating drives of the sullen Heathcliff. It isn't love but thwarted ambition and narcissism that forward the plot.

Only one character in Wuthering Heights actually thinks about what is "right" and "wrong", and she, Nelly Dean, the nursemaid and confidante to many of the characters, is powerless to stop the serial tragedies from unfolding. But ignorant and untutored as she is, she never wavers in her moral convictions. She is continually grieved by the behaviour of her employers but never dreams of leaving them in the lurch, and because she narrates so much of the tale, it is her reasonable voice and her judgments that help the reader keep a civilized perspective in an otherwise pagan environment.

As a professional calling rather than an economic necessity, domestic service effectively ended with the onset of the Second World War. The sad denouement of the professional butler is most movingly captured in the portrait of Stevens, the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. Far from being the Jeeves know-it-all who educates his feckless "master" and rescues him from his foolish imbroglios, this mute attendant stands robotically to the side, refusing to recognize either Evil or Love when they are visible to anyone with eyes to see. His willed blindness is a kind of self-castration, a moral abdication symbolizing the end of balanced civilization as England knew it before the war.

Nowadays butlers are staple "signifiers" of British stuffiness in American sitcoms, anachronistic purveyors of elegance in embassies, and status symbols, however usefully employed, for the rich and famous. Toward the end of the upper-class's hegemony, as the aristocrats of the nation became ever more useless and ornamental, J. M. Barrie wrote a play on this explicitly articulated theme called The Admirable Crichton, in which, marooned due to a Gilligan's Island-style mishap, an aristocratic family and their servants reverse roles. Crichton, the butler, saves the family through his superior intelligence and survivor skills.

At one point, the family matriarch says to Crichton with grateful admiration, "You are the best man among us." It isn't a crime to be rich. The wealthy deserve the discretion of those happy enough to take their money. The tabloids may reward low behaviour, but there will never be a www.askburrell.com.

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