The Manservant in Fiction

30 Jun

Gentleman’s gentleman, manservant, butler… They’re recurring characters in English fiction, despite their comparative scarcity in modern society. Among the authors with whose work I’m well acquainted, it’s the menservants of Ivy Compton-Burnett and P G Wodehouse that spring to mind. All of Compton-Burnett’s novels are located in a big house with a large domestic staff. Bullivant, the butler par excellence in Manservant and Maidservant (1947) stands out among them. Bertie Wooster’s valet, Jeeves is the most famous manservant of them all, of course, and one of English literature’s great comic characters. Wodehouse and Compton-Burnett continued to write about such households long after most of them had disappeared.

I’ve just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, the story of which is told from the point of view of the butler, Stevens. I had seen the 1993 adaptation for the screen, filmed in inimical Merchant Ivory style with an excellent cast led by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. For some reason, I hadn’t got around to reading the original novel. It continues the Japanese theme of my reading year (the novelist was born in Nagasaki and didn’t become a British citizen until his late 20s.). As I have contended before, for all that film may look beautiful, adaptations of great books are almost always inferior to their sources. If I have enjoyed a novel and that book is subsequently adapted for the screen, I’ll rarely watch it. I don’t want another’s imaginative rendering of a book supplanted for my own. On this occasion, I approached it the other way around.

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“Sir, your servant.”

Each of Ishiguro’s books is distinct from the last (the precise opposite of Compton-Burnett’s oeuvre). As I’ve mentioned before, I admire writers who are brave enough to take this approach and skilful enough to bring it off. And this book works marvellously well, from my point of view. Ishiguro’s writing is all about lightness of touch. The reader must pick up on its subtleties and inferences. Last week’s edition of A Good Read on BBC Radio 4 featured An Artist of the Floating World, chosen by the show’s host, Harriet Gilbert. And while Gilbert put up a strong defence of the charms of Ishiguro’s work, one of the guests, the broadcaster, Colin Murray objected to the things that it left unsaid and dismissed it as a book in which nothing happens. Each to his own, I suppose…

Stevens seems to owe not a little to Jeeves with his starchy, conceited manner and air of omnipotence. But there’s a further connection between Ishiguro’s character and Wodehouse. Stevens’ employer, Lord Darlington, flirts with fascism and is firmly in the appeasement camp when it comes to Adolf Hitler. One of the most enduring characters from the Jeeves books is Sir Roderick Spode, founder of the British fascist movement, the Black Shorts. What a gloriously absurd name (Brown Shorts might have worked even better, though…). The inventor of such an organisation couldn’t possibly be in thrall to fascism, by any stretch of the imagination. And yet Wodehouse’s internment by the Nazis in France (the subject of a recent BBC drama, which I missed, unfortunately) led to controversy and damaged his reputation. Unwisely, he agreed to make broadcasts on German radio, an act that many – A A Milne, foremost among them – saw as collaborationist and ultimately treacherous. One of the characters in my last novel tries to imagine this:

  “I say, Jeeves.”

  “Sir?”

  “This Herr Hitler fellow’s rather topping, what?”

  “Indeed, sir, just the ticket.”

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Here you can see what has become of the butler sink that once stood in my kitchen

A friend of mine worked as a butler and had been in the service of several very well know celebrities and aristocrats. He seemed to enjoy it. I have to say, though, that I have a strong objection to domestic service. The idea that one person’s life should be subjugated to another’s runs counter to my inclination that every human being ought to have the chance to fulfil his or her potential. My maternal grandmother, who’d been happy at school, had to leave to enter domestic service, far from home and aged just fourteen. Of course, to an extent, we’re all servants of others in our work, but that oughtn’t to extend itself to our entire existence.

And then there’s the ancient butler in Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End who goes by the name of Old Scrotum the Wrinkled Retainer… Stanshall was nothing if not coarse. A grand house features in my last novel, located in the estate village next to the airbase on which the book is set. The house has been abandoned and subsequently requisitioned by the Air Force. The former butler, Lancelot Mudd, spends much of his time in the village pub (his name comes from a list of fictional butlers devised for a long-forgotten project that was to have been called, Hawkhurst: a Garden City Gothick. Others were Gunn, Morrow, Pugh, Garvestone and Jubb). Below is a short extract from the novel about the estate and its owner.

The estate’s buildings were constructed from the local limestone, mostly in the Arts and Crafts style. The letters ‘HW’ were to be found on the porches of the estate workers’ cottages, commemorating Sir Hubert Warner, master of the Hall in the middle years of the previous century. The houses looked the sort that might be occupied by enchanted children or mischievous bogles in a book of illustrated fairy tales, sweetly sinister with their Gothic arched front doors, tall gables and leaded-light windows. By all accounts, Hubert Warner had been something of an eccentric. Philanthropist, paternalist and pagan revivalist, he’d been responsible for most of the improvements in the village, the building of the school and village hall, the institution of festival days and the whipping of the paper horse on Midsummer’s Day. Sir Hubert it was who’d set aside the land for Maypole Green, who’d turned the Hare and Hounds into the Green Man, who’d founded the Kirkby Thorpe Morris Men and the Norton Mummers. He was the sort of man – had he been born a century later – who’d have believed in alien visitations and abductions.  And he’d found a ready audience. There’d still been many in the village that believed in the Black Bull of the Fens, the form the devil was said to take while goring babies in their cots and trampling the unwary on marshland lanes. He’d thrown week-long parties where luminaries of the mettle of William Morris and Oscar Wilde were reputed to have been among the guests. It was also rumoured that he’d believed in fairies, but beyond this, nobody had a bad word to say about him.  

All text and images © PSR 2013

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