Friday, March 12, 2010

"I started without butlers and I'll die without butlers, no less a happy man."

In writing about Anthony Powell's Venusberg last weekend, I quoted a passage wherein the protagonist, Lushington, gets saddled, entirely against his will, with a valet named Pope. Described as "a curious character," by the time he actually shows up, he turns out to be far worse than even that description might suggest, more like a demonic Jeeves, with hints of Dickens. His first appearance in Lushington's service comes with the flick of a light switch in Lushington's bedroom well before dawn, when his new master is still far from finished with sleeping off a late night of carousing:
"Who are you?" said Lushington, still with his eyes shut.

"I'm Pope, sir. Mr. Da Costa's man. I expect Mr. Da Costa mentioned that I was going to call you."

He coughed behind his hand. Lushington tried to adjust his memory. The man's face was certainly familiar, so he said:

"Oh, yes, he did. But you have called me rather early, haven't you? What is the time?"

"Mr Da Costa told me to call you first. Mr. Da Costa goes to the chancellery rather late sometimes. He said that he thought it would be better if I called you first. Those were his orders."

"By all means call me first. Very likely Mr. Da Costa does not get up until lunch. But is it necessary to be as early as this? This is an unearthly hour."

"I'm afraid it would be very inconvenient to call you at any other time sir. I am sorry."
That settled, Pope moves to the task of laying out Lushington's clothes for the far-from-dawned day:
"Which suit will you wear?"

"The blue one."

"The one you wore yesterday?"


Pope hesitated. He said:

"If you did not wear the suit you wore yesterday, sir, I could brush it."

"All right; I'll wear the other one."

"The brown one?"


"The brown one needs pressing terribly, sir."

"I know."

"Shall I press it for you, sir?"

"Will you?"

Uneasily Pope watched Lushington in bed. He said:

"Would it be better if you wore the blue suit today and then I can press the brown one? Would that be convenient?"

"Yes, yes, I'll do that."
For Powell fans, this recalcitrance calls to mind Smith, the resentful, alcoholic butler who plagues Erridge and the Jeavons family in A Dance to the Music of Time. Smith's untimely death (from an infected monkey bite) prompts Ted Jeavons to launch into a rambling eulogy that quickly transforms into a disquisition on the entire profession:
Smith tried to take a biscuit away from that tenacious ape. Probably wanted it himself to mop up some of the gin that he'd drunk. God, the way that man used to put back our gin. I marked the bottle, but it wasn't a damn bit of use. . . . Smith'll probably be the last butler I'll ever find myself employing--not that there's likely to be many butlers to employ, the way things are going. That fact doesn't break my heart. Taking them all in all, the tall with the short, the fat with the thin, the drunk with the sober, they're not a profession that greatly appeals to me. Of course, I was brought in contact with butlers late in life. Never set eyes on them in the circles I came from. I may have been unlucky in the butlers I've met. There may be the one in a hundred, but it's a long time to wait. Read about butlers in books--see 'em in plays. That's all right. Have 'em in the house--a very different matter. Look what they do to your clothes, apart from anything else. I started without butlers and I'll die without butlers, no less a happy man. There's the bell. No butler, so I'll answer it myself.
To which Jeeves would say . . . nothing, for that is what a well-husbanded reticence is for.

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