In my book, THE WICKED WEDDING OF MISS ELLIE VYNE one of my favorite characters was born in the shape of Grieves, James Hartley's indomitable valet.
Grieves is the quintessential "Gentleman's Gentleman" - he is there not only to take care of his master's clothes, but to pick up the pieces and gently steer James on the right path, as often as possible, in his own quiet, unobtrusive way. He is a long-suffering confidant and patient advisor who has been with James for five years which, as he wearily observes, "doesn't feel a day over ten."
Above all, he is a friend to James.
Although on the surface their relationship appears to be one merely of master and servant, it is a bond much stronger than that and more complex. They share a sense of mutual respect and understanding. They need each other and -- much to their surprise -- they like each other.
James and Grieves share a dry sense of humor which has evidently brought them closer. Not to mention a sly enjoyment of the occasional mischief -- an ability to "get away with it". By the time I was done writing their scenes, I couldn't imagine the two of them ever parting company and I'm sure Grieves remained with James to the end of their days.
One day I'd like to write a little romance for Mr. Grieves. I'm sure he'd object with all the proper exclamations, because what would James Hartley do without him?!
I had a few inspirations for Grieves. One was the solemn, thoughtful, introverted "Stephens" played so movingly by Anthony Hopkins in the film "Remains of the Day". For the more playful side, I turned to inspiration from the "Jeeves and Wooster" stories by P.G. Wodehouse, particularly Stephen Fry's hilarious portrayal of the capable, ever-composed butler in the TV adaption of those books
History of the Valet
In the middle ages a valet would have been the son of a knight or nobleman, employed as much for his own education in a grand household as to serve a master. A valet, subsequently, was an important member of staff and even in the early nineteenth century he ranked above butler. The valet often got to travel with his master, so he enjoyed a wider experience of Society and the world in general than was available to most other servants. This, I'm sure, gave him something of an aura of mystery!
A valet tended to the care of his master's garments, rose early to ensure boots and shoes were cleaned, would prepare the washing-stand in the dressing room and sometimes he would shave his master too, once the lazy gentleman was up and out of bed. The valet also handled secretarial duties for his master, made travel arrangements, kept accounts of visitors and tried to make sure the calls were returned. He accompanied his master abroad, where it was apparently important that he have not only a "smattering" of languages, but the ability to detect bed bugs, and some knowledge of medicine -- for those pesky foreign doctors were considered even less trustworthy than their English counterparts!!
Loyalty, honesty and devotion were the cornerstones of a valet's position. In 1892, Lady Violet Greville noted of valets that, "If he smokes your cigars, your loose cash may lie about freely; he will not touch it. You who are so careless with your studs and sleeve-links possess an attendant who counts and looks after them. If he occasionally helps himself to a glass or two of wine, he pays your bills punctually."
Below is a short explanation of the valet's duties, taken from The Complete Servant by Samuel and Sarah Adams, 1825.
"As the valet is much about his master's person, and has the opportunity of hearing his off-at-hand opinions on many subjects, he should endeavor to have as short a memory as possible, and above all keep his master's council; and he should be cautious of mischief-making or tale-bearing to the prejudice of other persons, as calculated to involve his master in disputes, and ruin himself if by chance he is incorrect."
I think Grieves would agree with all that, apart from the mischief-making!
Here is a little excerpt from THE WICKED WEDDING OF MISS ELLIE VYNE, in which Grieves attempts to keep his distracted master (James Hartley) on track for the day's schedule.
James critically perused his reflection in the long mirror. "That damned tailor will have to go. Look at this!" He raised his arms straight out in front, showing how the shirt pulled, stretching the stitches at his shoulders.
"I am sorry, sir." The valet cast a timid eye over his master’s breeches, which were also snug.
Seeing his expression, James exclaimed, "Quite, Grieves. I should like to be left with a little dignity at the end of the day." He took the new coat from the valet’s arms and tried to shrug his way into it, pausing as he felt the warning tightness and heard stitches break. He turned, still hunched, arms curved.
Grieves hastened to his aid. "Let me help you out, sir."
"Bring me my gun, Grieves, and I’ll shoot the fellow."
"It just requires a few adjustments, to be sure."
"My gun, Grieves!"
With an almighty heave, James extracted his wide shoulders from the coat, and Grieves reached up to smooth down his shirtsleeves. "I shall speak to the tailor, sir."
"Quicker to shoot him."
"Yet not quite so practical. He is, after all, the very best tailor in London, so they say."
"Humph." Turning this way and that, James examined his reflection. "I’ve never seen such shoddy workmanship. The fellow’s eyesight must be fading if he cannot get a simple measurement correct."
Grieves politely suggested his master might have gained an inch or two about the waist and chest since his measurements were last taken.
James pulled the new shirt off and flung a scowl over his shoulder. "It is evident, Grieves, that you are in league with this new tailor. I daresay he slipped you a few coins to recommend his services to me. You always were a conniving fellow."
"Indeed not, sir!"
"In any case, it’s all muscle," James added, one hand laid to his stomach, fingers splayed to feel the ridges and reassure himself. "Thanks to the boxing club. Solid as a rock."
"A mountain of manliness, if I might be so bold, sir."
"If bold also means facetious, no you may not." Glancing down at his tight breeches again, he exclaimed, "What happened to the previous tailor? He managed to make my clothes fit for the last twenty years at least."
"Mr. Chadworth has left us, sir," Grieves declared sorrowfully. "I did apprise you of it when it happened."
"Left us? How can this be permitted?"
"I doubt it was intentional, sir. The gentleman is dead."
"Dead? How damned thoughtless of the fellow."
"An attack of the heart, I believe. He was very elderly."
James stormed about the room, shaking his head at the sheer inconvenience. "Now that I think of it, he was a dreadful fellow, with breath that could strip fur from a badger. I daresay we’re better off without him. But this new tailor? Are you certain he can fill Chadworth’s shoes?"
"I am assured he is the very best. He is newly arrived from France, and he—" Grieves clammed up, grabbed a waistcoat from the edge of the bed, and slid it over his master’s arms.
The slip, however, had not gone unnoticed. James exploded, "A Frenchman, of all things!"
"I am sorry, sir, but he—"
"Grieves, have you forgotten that scoundrel Napoleon?"
"But Napoleon is dead, sir."
"Just because the man is dead, Grieves, doesn’t mean he’s changed for the better. And he was French."
Nothing further to be said on the matter of the French, the valet took out a small brush and worked it briskly over the back and shoulders of his master’s waistcoat. "Are you going out this morning, sir? So early?"
The events of the previous evening waltzed through his mind again. A pair of stunning violet eyes, a warm hand slipping out of his grip, lips trying not to laugh at him. Extraordinary lips he silenced with a kiss. Ellie Vyne hadn’t let him sleep a wink last night, and he swore that tonight he would repay the favor.
"What time is it, Grieves?"
"It is half past eleven, sir."
"Good. Order the carriage brought around, will you?" He whistled a light tune as he shrugged his shoulders into his coat.
"Is everything all right, sir?"
Grabbing the elderly valet by his ears, James planted a kiss on his furrowed brow. "Grieves, if I thought you wouldn’t fritter it away, I’d give you an increase in pay at once."
"Good heavens, sir…that would have been very nice."
"I’m in an excellent mood today and shortly to regain the treasure stolen from me by that Frenchman."
"What a relief, sir." Clutching the little brush in both hands, Grieves edged cautiously around his master. "The treasure in question is the Hartley Diamonds, sir?"
"No, no! The Vyne woman. Do follow along, Grieves."
The valet swayed backward on his heels. "Miss Vyne, sir? The one you do not wish on your worst enemy?"
"The very same."
"Miss Vyne of the stubborn demeanor and quarrelsome streak? Little Miss Vyne of the ink moustache?"
"Not so little anymore." His gaze went foggy as he thought again of her long legs and the rosebuds framing her bosom. "But quite grown-up."
"I never met the infamous lady, sir."
"Think yourself lucky. She’s naught but trouble, and I can’t imagine what has possessed me. But there it is. Someone should take her in hand. It may as well be me, since I’m a reformed man, shouldering the responsibilities no one else wants."
"Hartleys are speaking to Vynes this year then, sir?"
"Indeed we are, Grieves." James swept out of the room and down the stairs, completely forgetting his boots, obliging Grieves to run after and stop him before he could walk out into the street barefoot.