Why the Butler Did It: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

In the Victorian era, even modest households had domestic staff. The butler was the top of the food chain, in charge of the pantries like the buttery, in which (once upon a time) the butts of wine and other liquors were stored (yes, I made a pun). He was more of a manager than someone involved in physical work. He might answer the door, formally announce guests, and serve the dinner, but generally a footman would take on those duties; it was only in the smaller households he would do double duty. A butler’s duties were very different in the Victorian era to those expected of him today, as only the largest estates might have a steward or estate manager that would be of higher status than the butler. The master’s valet might make requests on his master’s account, but his power and status was not on the same level as the butler, in the same way a PA might be able to pass on the CEO’s requests to the office manager, but the PA can’t actually order the office manager around.

It is a cliché that in early Twentieth century noir-fiction mystery novels that ‘the butler did it’. This is because, traditionally, domestic servants were seen in the same light as ‘furniture’, and so it was shocking when a domestic servant showed agency. They were often not even considered a suspect. The earliest example is in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual from 1893, where the butler isn’t the main villain but is a thief.

This cliché didn’t happen as often as you might think in literature or movies. A bit like come celebrities, it is sort of famous for being famous. However, there are two reasons the cliché might still exist.

The Admirable Crichton is a comic stage play written in 1902 by James M. Barry, who also wrote Peter Pan. The bulter, Crichton, is the only one of a shipwrecked party with any practical knowledge or skills. He ends up the leader of the group, which also contains his employers in England. Crichton displays all the qualities of a true leader, but once the party are rescued and back in England, Crichton has to resume his duties as a servant, and readjust his behaviour according to his change in status. The play makes several pointed observations about the class system and human nature. As previously mentioned,  ‘the butler did it’ scenarios were never as common as popular belief holds them to be. However, they’re not entirely non-existent after Crichton humanised the butler. In Herbert Jenkins’ The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner (1921) and in Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door (1930), the villainous butlers indeed do ‘it’.

2. In real life, the American philanthropist William Marsh Rice was murdered by his butler & valet, Charles F. Jones, in September, 1900. Jones was in collusion with Mr Rice’s lawyer, Albert Patrick, who tried to fraudulently claim that Mr Rice had changed in will in favour of Patrick. They were found out, and the money went to his institute of higher learning as Rice had wanted.The money was used in the founding of a free institute of higher education in Texas, which is now the Rice University. It was quite the scandal at the time.


    2157. The domestic duties of the butler are to bring in the eatables at breakfast, and wait upon the family at that meal, assisted by the footman, and see to the cleanliness of everything at table. On taking away, he removes the tray with the china and plate, for which he is responsible. At luncheon, he arranges the meal, and waits unassisted, the footman being now engaged in other duties. At dinner, he places the silver and plated articles on the table, sees that everything is in its place, and rectifies what is wrong. He carries in the first dish, and announces in the drawing-room that dinner is on the table, and respectfully stands by the door until the company are seated, when he takes his place behind his master’s chair on the left, to remove the covers, handing them to the other attendants to carry out. After the first course of plates is supplied, his place is at the sideboard to serve the wines, but only when called on.
    2158. The first course ended, he rings the cook’s bell, and hands the dishes from the table to the other servants to carry away, receiving from them the second course, which he places on the table, removing the covers as before, and again taking his place at the sideboard.
    2159. At dessert, the slips being removed, the butler receives the dessert from the other servants, and arranges it on the table, with plates and glasses, and then takes his place behind his master’s chair to hand the wines and ices, while the footman stands behind his mistress for the same purpose, the other attendants leaving the room. Where the old-fashioned practice of having the dessert on the polished table, without any cloth, is still adhered to, the butler should rub off any marks made by the hot dishes before arranging the dessert.
    2160. Before dinner, he has satisfied himself that the lamps, candles, or gas-burners are in perfect order, if not lighted, which will usually be the case. Having served every one with their share of the dessert, put the fires in order (when these are used), and seen the lights are all right, at a signal from his master, he and the footman leave the room.
    2161. He now proceeds to the drawing-room, arranges the fireplace, and sees to the lights; he then returns to his pantry, prepared to answer the bell, and attend to the company, while the footman is clearing away and cleaning the plate and glasses.
    2162. At tea he again attends. At bedtime he appears with the candles; he locks up the plate, secures doors and windows, and sees that all the fires are safe.
    2163. In addition to these duties, the butler, where only one footman is kept, will be required to perform some of the duties of the valet, to pay bills, and superintend the other servants. But the real duties of the butler are in the wine-cellar; there he should be competent to advise his master as to the price and quality of the wine to be laid in; “fine,” bottle, cork, and seal it, and place it in the binns. Brewing, racking, and bottling malt liquors, belong to his office, as well as their distribution. These and other drinkables are brought from the cellar every day by his own hands, except where an under-butler is kept; and a careful entry of every bottle used, entered in the cellar-book; so that the book should always show the contents of the cellar.
     2164. The office of butler is thus one of very great trust in a household. Here, as elsewhere, honesty is the best policy: the butler should make it his business to understand the proper treatment of the different wines under his charge, which he can easily do from the wine-merchant, and faithfully attend to it; his own reputation will soon compensate for the absence of bribes from unprincipled wine-merchants, if he serves a generous and hospitable master. Nothing spreads more rapidly in society than the reputation of a good wine-cellar, and all that is required is wines well chosen and well cared for; and this a little knowledge, carefully applied, will soon supply.
    2165. The butler, we have said, has charge of the contents of the cellars, and it is his duty to keep them in a proper condition, to fine down wine in wood, bottle it off, and store it away in places suited to the sorts. Where wine comes into the cellar ready bottled, it is usual to return the same number of empty bottles; the butler has not, in this case, the same inducements to keep the bottles of the different sorts separated; but where the wine is bottled in the house, he will find his account, not only in keeping them separate, but in rinsing them well, and even washing them with clean water as soon as they are empty.
     2166. There are various modes of fining wine: isinglass, gelatine, and gum Arabic are all used for the purpose. Whichever of these articles is used, the process is always the same. Supposing eggs (the cheapest) to be used,–Draw a gallon or so of the wine, and mix one quart of it with the whites of four eggs, by stirring it with a whisk; afterwards, when thoroughly mixed, pour it back into the cask through the bunghole, and stir up the whole cask, in a rotatory direction, with a clean split stick inserted through the bunghole. Having stirred it sufficiently, pour in the remainder of the wine drawn off, until the cask is full; then stir again, skimming off the bubbles that rise to the surface. When thoroughly mixed by stirring, close the bunghole, and leave it to stand for three or four days. This quantity of clarified wine will fine thirteen dozen of port or sherry. The other clearing ingredients are applied in the same manner, the material being cut into small pieces, and dissolved in the quart of wine, and the cask stirred in the same manner.
     2167.To Bottle Wine.–Having thoroughly washed and dried the bottles, supposing they have been before used for the same kind of wine, provide corks, which will be improved by being slightly boiled, or at least steeped in hot water,–a wooden hammer or mallet, a bottling-boot, and a squeezer for the corks. Bore a hole in the lower part of the cask with a gimlet, receiving the liquid stream which follows in the bottle and filterer, which is placed in a tub or basin. This operation is best performed by two persons, one to draw the wine, the other to cork the bottles. The drawer is to see that the bottles are up to the mark, but not too full, the bottle being placed in a clean tub to prevent waste. The corking-boot is buckled by a strap to the knee, the bottle placed in it, and the cork, after being squeezed in the press, driven in by a flat wooden mallet.
     2168. As the wine draws near to the bottom of the cask, a thick piece of muslin is placed in the strainer, to prevent the viscous grounds from passing into the bottle.
     2169. Having carefully counted the bottles, they are stored away in their respective binns, a layer of sand or sawdust being placed under the first tier, and another over it; a second tier is laid over this, protected by a lath, the head of the second being laid to the bottom of the first; over this another bed of sawdust is laid, not too thick, another lath; and so on till the binn is filled.
     2170. Wine so laid in will be ready for use according to its quality and age. Port wine, old in the wood, will be ready to drink in five or six months; but if it is a fruity wine, it will improve every year. Sherry, if of good quality, will be fit to drink as soon as the “sickness” (as its first condition after bottling is called) ceases, and will also improve; but the cellar must be kept at a perfectly steady temperature, neither too hot nor too cold, but about 55° or 60°, and absolutely free from draughts of cold air.

Excerpt from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton

Of course, in our Postmodern culture, clichés are revitalised and re-used, As well, we have quite positive images of butlers in all media: Butler in Artemis Fowl, Lurch in The Addams Family, the character Jeeves from the stories of P G Wodehouse, Mr French from A Family Affair, and Willlikins from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Willikins. Discworld quote by Sir Terry Pratchett. by Kim White:

Under the circumstances, I just had to invent a dangerous butler of my own. He isn’t intrinsicly evil, but he works for some very bad people. His loyalty to his employers is admirable … which makes him very scary indeed.



Filed under Characterization, Historical Personage, History, Steampunk Genre, Stereotypes, writing

4 responses to “Why the Butler Did It: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. Excellent post. “The Butler did it” is a bit of a clichéd trope, but if you are reading one of the Victorian era mysteries that employed its use, it does still work. It only seems contrived in more modern works. Maybe it’s a result of modern sensibilities regarding human rights and dignity. It can be hard for modern people to see servants as objects, which most of the Victorian era society did. The idea of a Butler planning and carrying out a murder was excitingly different at the time.

    • I’m always interested in how tropes become tropes. Like – Why the Butler and not the Housekeeper? Why doesn’t the action centre on the poor little maid that the master has made pregnant? These were issues generally ignored in the Victorian era, and only came to light as modern sensibilities asserted the rights of the domestic servant to a safe and wholesome working environment, and fair wages.

  2. Lynne, you would have encountered two butlers already in my series, *both* with the name Jaffer. I almost decide that *all* butler in the series would be called Jaffer, but since I had already created Mr Jyves (you may pronounce that how you will), I stuck with him.
    In Book 3 you’ll encounter Mr Squair – the 4th butler in the series.

    I cannot safely predict how many more are to come. And besides, since I never kill my butlers, they’re all eminently recyclable.

    • It was actually thinking about ‘Beyond the Stonewind Sky’ and the butlers/minions in my own Steampunk narrative that inspired this post. Mr Mook and Mr Mook are an interesting pair of non-identical twins, vaguely based on characters of Mr Pin and Mr Tulip from Discworld’s ‘The Truth’.

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