What is a Manservant?

Jessica Ellis

A manservant, also called a valet, is an historical position that has developed into the modern day personal assistant. For centuries, menservants worked for gentry, royalty and the fabulously rich, often serving as companions and minders as well as servants. Valets are a constant presence in literature, always ducking in at the last moment to save their charge, who is technically their employer, from disaster.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

The term valet has existed at least since the 15th century, though clearly the position of manservant is an ancient one. In the classical sense of the word, they were men who worked for other men, performing a variety of duties. Often, the valet was in charge of dressing, bathing and shaving their employer, but their tasks rarely ended with those basic tasks. The manservant was the link between the master and the rest of the servants, and so was often considered a head servant with considerably authority.

In small households, the valet might have performed some housekeeping duties, but often he was far too busy for that. In addition to maintaining the wardrobe and style of his master, a manservant often was a constant companion, accompanying his employer on business and pleasure travels. Typically, menservants were a luxury, and the position only existed in homes where there was a great deal of money to throw around. Particularly during the 19th century Victorian era in England, the aristocracy lived on inherited wealth and did not always have jobs or primary occupations. A manservant of a busily social master could find himself whisked around the world at a moment’s notice, so his duties were primarily to be ready for whatever the master could throw at him.

In fiction, the role of the valet is used in a number of ways. In the comedic tales of P.G. Wodehouse, the helpless and ridiculously rich Bertie Wooster is constantly being saved by his perpetually calm valet, Jeeves. Drawing on the wartime manservant tradition of Great Britain, Samwise Gamgee is the saving grace of careworn Frodo in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In addition to monitoring the life of his charge and offering sage advice, the unending lengths of a manservant’s job is truly tested in many portrayals of Alfred, the loyal and lifelong valet of Batman.

Ideally, valets are quite loyal, yet a position of such high sensitivity is certainly subject to power over their employer. Some fictional and historical menservants are notoriously treacherous, happy to hand over information or blackmail their employers for the right price. In many ways, this type of betrayal is a product of the class systems that kept servants from ever achieving much personal wealth or greater position. The serving class of Victorian England had an obvious glass ceiling, and some lifelong servants who managed to squirrel away money were certainly doing so by exploiting their masters.

Today, the wealthy and powerful still have a variety of assistants and servants who perform many of the functions of a traditional valet. With the class system being more or less abolished, these personal helpers may be more obvious in their ambition, occasionally attaching themselves to powerful people as a means of furthering their own goals. Although friendships can certainly still spring up between assistants and employers, the implied intimacy and care given by a faithful manservant is often a thing of the past.

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