Monday, 31 October 2022 10:26

The butler in literature and films: a cultural construct of working-class deference and servility

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The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day

In the ancient world it tended to be the most trusted slaves who were put in charge of the care and service of the wine cellar. The word ‘butler’ comes from the Middle English word bouteler, and morphed into the Old Norman butelier, itself corresponding to the Old French botellier meaning ‘bottle bearer.’

The artist Hogarth had a painting done of his six most important servants called Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants (c 1758) and this was placed on his dining room wall where his visitors were said to be outraged. Portraiture was considered only fit for aristocratic, upper-class representation. In Hogarth’s painting the butler is in the middle of the painting with the five other servants surrounding him showing the hierarchical nature within the servant class itself. Such portraits were highly unusual for this period but the heads show the simplicity and honesty of the individuals and present Hogarth as a man worthy of such loyalty.

Hogarths Servants 1

Throughout the nineteenth century, and more particularly during the late Victorian era, the number of butlers and domestic servants grew as a result of the largesse made from imperial expansion. The social historian Barry Higman pointed out that a high number of butlers and other domestic servants rose in accordance with a high level of economic inequality within society. This may explain why, in the twenty- first century, a TV and film version of Downton Abbey is proving so popular today.

This world of hierarchical privilege should long ago have been banished but literature, it seems, has kept it alive and thriving. Not only as something quaint, however, but also with the added cultural and hegemonic influence it has to still keep everyone in their allotted places.

There have been countless tacky novels, whodunits and melodramas where butlers end up being the killers – thus the catchphrase ‘The butler did it!’ The fact that in such cheap literature it was the butler only confirms his low breeding and class status.

Jeeves and Wooster

However, there are also quite a few texts that present butlers with plummy voices, such as in the novels of PG Wodehouse. Jeeves, we are told, is not really a butler, but more ‘a gentleman’s gentleman.’ Many of these novels were made into dramas for TV with Stephen Fry playing the part of Jeeves and Hugh Laurie the part of Bertie Wooster. They all followed a familiar pattern with the upper-class twit, Wooster, having to rely on the superior intelligence of Jeeves to get him out of countless scrapes.


Oscar Wilde satirised such people in his plays during the Victorian era and Wodehouse and others were simply carrying on this tradition.  English literature’s fascination with the follies and foibles of class simply reveal how enduring class division in England has been.

The Admirable Crichton

The play The Admirable Crichton (1902) by JM Barrie was made into a film in 1957 starring Kenneth More as the butler, Crichton. This film regularly appears on TV today. The liberal-minded Earl of Loam asks his three daughters to treat the staff as equals over an afternoon with tea. Lady Brocklehurst arrives and strongly disapproves of any change to the natural order of class rule. Interestingly, so too does Crichton. As a loyal butler who knows his place in the scheme of things, he too protests against such folly. Service, for him, means serving those better than yourself.

Lady Catherine, one of the Earl’s daughters, is arrested at a suffragette protest and the Earl decides that the family should take a trip on his yacht to the South Seas. Hopefully, the scandal will have died down by their return.

The yacht’s motors explode during a storm and they all end up stranded on a desert island. The abandoned yacht drifts into an offshore rock formation and Crichton swims out to salvage what he can. Class differences are initially kept until the Earl and his daughters, together with vicar John Traherne and Ernest Wooley realise their uselessness and come to rely on the butler for virtually everything required to stay alive.


There is also a maid called Eliza who is soon known as Tweeny. Because of Crichton’s abilities as someone who has had to work for a living, he goes on to become known as Guv. He creates a division of labour for everyone and this is the first time the upper-class castaways have ever worked in their lives.

Both Lady Mary and Eliza fall in love with Guv Crichton and all the other men fall for Tweeny. Lady Brocklehurst would be appalled at such a turn of events. With a clear division of labour, they all thrive and Crichton and Lady Mary intend to marry and vicar Traherne carries out the ceremony. Just before their vows are taken a ship appears. Everyone wishes to ignore it except Crichton. They return home and reverse into their former class divisions. This was at Crichton’s insistence. Knowing his place is, after all, part of the DNA of being a butler. Crichton, to protect the family, decides to leave the service of the Earl and he takes Tweeny with him. The Earl decides to move across the floor to the Tory benches as a result of his mistakes on the desert island by forgetting his superior position. The paradise they created on the desert island turns out to have been a Never-Never Land belonging only to the realm of dreams.

The tale of Crichton shows how deep those ruling class values have shaped those who have served their masters and they look up to them as their betters. This is precisely what gives us Conservative governments time and time again. Each presentation of a butler – whether in literature or in film – serves to embed the values and the rule of the upper-classes.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Similarly, the drama series on TV during the 1970s, appropriately called Upstairs, Downstairs, presented the butler, Angus Hudson, as authoritarian and irascible. He was the enforcer of hierarchies downstairs among the staff, on behalf of his masters upstairs. Like Crichton he believes in the class divisions as somehow natural. He sees his place as enforcer of values which should be inimical to him if he could only think for himself. He doesn’t seem to realise that such values serve others and not himself.

Fester lurch 1966

Even in more popular culture we meet butlers who seem simply as those born to serve. Batman has a butler called Alfred Pennyworth and he too has the Rees-Mogg voice similar to Jeeves and Crichton (Hudson was Scottish). His surname Pennyworth seems significant in that butlers are generally only ever allowed a pennyworth of their opinions. And in the Gothic horror films of The Addams Family there is the tall and scary figure of butler Lurch, a figure I would suggest less scary than Rees-Mogg or any of the other members of the Tory party.

The Remains of the Day

However, for a portrait of the most abject deference and servility there can be no figure that embodies these qualities more than the butler, Stevens, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (1989). This work was made into a film in 1993 starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

The novel begins in 1956 as Stevens is given a day off from Darlington Hall by his new employer, the wealthy American Mr Farraday. As Stevens drives to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs Benn, he has a series of flashbacks about his time working as butler to the mansion’s former owner, Lord Darlington. Miss Kenton had also worked at Darlington Hall with Stevens in the 1920s and 30s.

Ishiguro builds up a portrait of a man who lived and breathed for his employer. Stevens had a mind only for his employer and to serve his needs and wishes. His being was given over to service and he was, like Crichton and Hudson, the enforcer of protocols for the staff which had always to be obeyed and never questioned. This proved delicate when Stevens and Kenton seem to be attracted to one another. However, the iron will of Stevens ensures that there will be no blossoming of romance or passion. There must be no relationships of any romantic nature between the staff.


Lord Darlington had arranged for high-ranking Nazi officials, along with his aristocratic chums, to dine at Darlington Hall and discuss politics. Stevens arranges things as he would for any other visitors. He has no beliefs or opinions of his own save the opinions of his employer, Lord Darlington. He must know best because he was privately educated, speaks with Received Pronunciation and simply knows what is best since he is the best.

Rees-Mogg, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, as well as Kwasi Kwarteng all attended Eton while George Osborne attended Harrow, Jeremy Hunt attended Charterhouse and Rishi Sunak attended Winchester. Between them and the comprehensive-educated Liz Truss, the damage done to lives of millions of people is incalculable. Yet for many people these posh boys are still to be looked upon as knowing better than others of a lower social standing. This is how a class-ridden society works.

Stevens, just like his butler father before him, knows never to question the opinions of those above. It is simply not done. Ishiguro should be commended for such a portrait of unquestioning acquiescence because he showed how such subservience can lead to fascism. There were, of course, several aristocrats who did flirt with Nazis. Lord Halifax and the Duke of Argyll spring to mind – as well as King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, after his abdication. The ruling class will do whatever it takes to see that their interests and privileges are looked after. Right now, after the demise of four Tory PMs since Brexit 2016, they will do anything they can to hold on to power rather than have a General Election. This is in no way surprising.

Interestingly, it was mentioned in the obituary of Charles Stewart of 27th August 2022 (another Old Etonian) in the Daily Telegraph, that he believed The Remains of the Day to be based on Mount Stewart and his great-grandfather, the 7th Marquis of Londonderry, Charles Vane-Tempest Stewart. This figure regularly visited Germany to meet with Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Goebbels and von Ribbentrop. He was described as ‘a controversial figure in Conservative and Unionist politics.’ With figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon, along with climate activists, Black Lives Matter activists and striking trade unionists derided as dangerous and a menace, it seems that being in bed with Nazis is no more than controversial.

The Servant

In the film The Servant (1963), written by Harold Pinter, and re-worked by him from a novella by Robin Maugham, we do see the tables turned. James Fox played the wealthy Londoner Tony who employs Hugo Barrett, played by Dirk Bogarde, as his manservant. All seems well until Barrett suggests that the house could do with a housemaid. He suggests his sister Vera, played by Sarah Miles, would be excellent in the position and she is taken on accordingly. However, Vera is in fact Barrett’s girlfriend and he encourages Vera to seduce Tony. Tony has a girlfriend of his own called Susan, played by Wendy Craig. But he duly falls under Vera’s charms.

Like Bertie Wooster and Earl Loam before him, Tony can do little for himself and relies heavily on both Barrett and Vera for all his needs. He is plied with drink and he becomes a hopeless alcoholic who begins to exhibit the infantilism associated with people from this class background.

Barrett and Vera take over the house and have parties where prostitutes are invited along. Pinter’s work is generally associated with strong currents of violence and menace and his script for The Servant certainly bears this out. This was effectively a revolutionary reversal of the class order. Barrett is no decent bloke but Tony is reduced to a pathetic figure when his position of power and privilege is usurped.


No such thing happens in Downton Abbey. The butler, Charles (‘Charlie’) Carson, started at Downton as a young lad and has worked his way up. He embodies the unquestioning mentality associated with service. His values are handed down to him from above. He fears the election of a Labour Government, he loves royalty and detests being called liberal. Carson is clearly made out to be anti-woke before wokery ever came along. The series first aired in 2010 so the writer, Julian Fellowes, was keenly aware of the character he was creating and the current debates going on.

It is a sad reflection that such a film can have had such success since there is so much poverty around; a poverty created to protect today’s Woosters, Loams, Darlingtons and Crawleys of Downton. It also shows that such films exist also to perpetuate class division. Stevens and Carson both look back to the better times when their respective households seemed much more secure before the advent of modernity and post-modernity. Both figures possess the conservative nostalgia for a halcyon past – a bit like the Brexit architects who promised Empire 2.0.

The figure of the butler seems a quintessentially British/English one. In a contemporary twist to this image Oliver Bullough has written Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals. The choice of the word butler seems a perfect one for a book such as this. As the rich have destroyed the economy for the many, their own interests are now served serving others, however unsavoury the others may be. These others now own chunks of our land, our football clubs, properties and businesses and as long as they bank their cash with us then that seems fine.

Born to rule or born to serve? It really is time for this relationship to be severed before more damage is done. The rich have only ever cared about their riches. Nothing has changed today. The image and figure of the butler should be relegated to history just like the class the butler once served. Walter Benjamin said that he ‘came into the world under the sign of Saturn – the star of the slowest revolution, the planet of detours and delays.’ We really have had enough detours and delays and far too many representations of butlers. Things need to be speeded up!


Read 2440 times Last modified on Tuesday, 01 November 2022 10:22
Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.

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