What has happened to butlers? They used to be the epitome of discretion and loyalty: but last week the Pope’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, began an 18-month prison sentence for passing documents from his employer’s desk on to a journalist. The trial of Paoletto, or ‘Little Paul’, as the Pope fondly called him, follows the trial of another butler nicknamed ‘Small Paul’, Paul Burrell, who was also found to have concealed his employers’ property in his home. (The main difference was that, despite hints that a Papal pardon might be forthcoming, Gabriele was not rescued from jail by the intercession of an 80-year-old head of state.)
And in America, a film is being made about Eugene Allen, butler to every president from Eisenhower to Reagan, which promises to show what the butler saw during his years at the White House: Lyndon Johnson, for example, using racial profanities behind closed doors while pushing through the Civil Rights Act. (Conversely, Allen was the first butler to be invited to a state dinner — by Ronald Reagan, here played by Alan Rickman, who lost the black vote by opposing affirmative action.)
Why would anyone employ a butler if he can’t be relied on not to commit indiscretion? Murder, yes — ‘The Butler Did It’ has been a cliché of murder mysteries for almost as long as the genre has existed. Only in detective stories, though: there are very few reports of butlers actually murdering their employer. The most notorious case in England to come close was the murder of Lord William Russell, a Whig MP, by his Swiss valet in 1840; and, in so far as that case caused moral panic, it was because the valet was Swiss. (At the valet’s trial, the prosecution’s theory of the case was based on the claim that the Swiss always murdered their robbery victims.) This was hardly surprising: at the time, most Englishmen would have more experience of servants than of the Swiss.
The idea of the butler’s predilection for homicide came much later: the first novel in which it was the butler who did it — The Door, by Mary Roberts Rinehart — was published in 1930, by which time domestic service was well into its decline. And it was only because the butler was disappearing that the cliché took off: the contemporary reader saw the butler as a status symbol rather than a possible suspect, and the mystery writer could exploit this snobbery to make the butler beneath suspicion. Most of what we know about butlers, we know from books published after butlers were an everyday part of life: when most readers have servants, a detective story can’t base the big reveal on the surprising fact that butlers are real people. The ideal reader of detective fiction is someone like Inspector Thompson, Stephen Fry’s character in Gosford Park. So desperate to appear at ease Upstairs, where domestic staff are part of the furniture, he forgets that those Downstairs are not, in fact, inanimate objects.
At much the same time as the murderous butler was becoming hackneyed, another image of the butler started to appear in fiction. Despite not actually being a butler (although he can, of course, butle with the best of them if the call comes), Jeeves quickly became the image of the quintessential English butler: respectful and resourceful, with a surprisingly refined and well-spoken accent. This idea that butlers always talked like Michael Hordern seems to be entirely Wodehouse’s invention: and, again, it relied on readers being unfamiliar with butlers. Victorian writers, if they ever thought to give butlers any dialogue at all, gave them regional accents, as you would expect — Sir Pitt Crawley’s butler Horrocks, for example, appears to be a cockney — but it’s rare to find butlers in the 20th century who don’t talk ‘RP’. Take Alfred, Batman’s English butler. His back-story is that he was Bruce Wayne’s father’s soldier-servant (making him, of course, Batman’s batman), but in the 1989 film Batman he was portrayed by an actor best known for playing Sir Anthony Eden. You knew that Christopher Nolan’s ‘re-booting’ of the franchise, with 2005’s Batman Begins, was going for gritty realism when he cast the celebrity cockney Michael Caine as Alfred.
The butler’s reputation for self-restraint — that discretion is the better part of valets — is equally anachronistic. When most families had servants, people understood that to employ servants was to lose your right to privacy: butlers were discreet because their employers were discreet. The assumption for 21st-century readers is that a butler would fit round your way of life, in the same way as any other labour-saving device, such as a dishwasher; in the 19th century, everyone knew that your life fitted round the presence of servants. (Take Lizzy Bennet’s concern, in Pride and Prejudice, immediately after Lydia’s elopement: it’s not that her prospects are ruined, not yet, but that her mother might let something slip in front of the servants.) The idea that a butler would keep your secrets is another myth, but an attractive one. And it’s become self-fulfilling: training for butlers now concentrates on the importance of discretion as much as, if not more than, the importance of ironing newspapers or faultless table settings. The Butler-Valet School near Oxford, for example, gives instructions on the correct response to discovering your master in the act of adultery — it is, incidentally, to ignore the lady until she cares to address you — and other situations which would have Downton Abbey’s Mr Carson handing in his notice.
But when a world-class butler can earn £150,000 a year, in addition to all expenses and living accommodation, as is now the case, then butlers are prepared to fit around their employer’s lifestyle, and become reliably mute. And more butlers are prepared to do so each year: there are 50 times as many butlers on the books of one agency than there were in the whole of Britain 30 years ago. The greatest surge in demand for English butlers comes from plutocrats from the former communist countries of Russia and China: apart from anything else, they are the only people who can afford the newly professionalised butler. It’s only two of the oldest monarchies in the world, Britain and the Vatican City, that would contemplate any other kind.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012