The Butler Speaks Book Review: Is Housekeeping an Art?

The Butler Speaks Book Review: Is Housekeeping an Art?

After meeting Charles MacPherson, butler extraordinaire, and receiving a review copy of his book "The Butler Speaks" at a luncheon in a private dining room at Travelle in Chicago's Langham Hotel, I became aware of how little I know about "The Art of Good Housekeeping."

Lucky for me, a few days later, I found the perfect opportunity to read MacPherson's book on a Chiberia chill holiday in Chicago where the temperature outdoors was a record-breaking -16 below zero.  I grabbed a cozy throw, made myself a pot of Earl Grey, sans the butler who sadly does not come with the book, and cracked open its spine not sure what to expect.

As the intoxicating "new book smell" oozed from the pages, I relaxed. Since I am a bit obsessive compulsive when it comes to my tech devices, I safely stowed them away in an unheated upstairs bedroom while I treated myself to a reading spa day.

Since my domestic education is the product of what I've learned from Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, I was curious what a real live butler would have to say. The cover text of the book sums up the contents as "A Guide to Stylish Entertaining, Etiquette and the Art of Good Housekeeping."

As I made myself comfortable with the book--something I probably would not have picked on my own--I settled into this seemingly mysterious world while musing over the description of housekeeping as an art. To me housekeeping is not and never has been an art. I review and report on the arts. The arts are theatre, painting, literature, music, film and dance. Housekeeping an art? Perish the thought.

Charles MacPherson author of "The Butler Speaks."

Charles MacPherson author of "The Butler Speaks."

MacPherson, a professional butler who's served one of Canada's most prominent families, is an author, a television personality and founder of North America's only registered school for butlers (and household managers) believes otherwise.

His butlering has taken him to Buckingham Palace, the private residence of Hotel du Marc and 35,000 feet in the air on a Gulfstream v with a celebrity--among other places.

But could he convince me that housekeeping is an art?

In "The Butler Speaks" MacPherson explains that "the essentials of household management" are not just for the rich and famous.

The book is part personal, part historical and loaded with detailed information. Whether one is hosting a dinner party, making a bed, making conversation or preparing afternoon tea--all you need to know to do so properly is thoroughly spelled out.

I especially enjoyed, part one of the book, "The Tradition of Service." This covered the Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs tradition of butlering where the quintessential English butler serves with dignity in wealthy estates--the romantic era of the butler.

In this part MacPherson elaborates on the history of calling bells, the Order of Precedence, ironing a newspaper, how to tell a Queen Anne chair from a Louis-Philippe chair and how to properly use a butler stick.

Unexpected details make for a rich look into the past--and, perhaps, a tutorial for understanding the downstairs at Downton.  MacPherson gives us an inside look at "life downstairs" from the front of the house to the back of the house and the kitchen.  He explains the tradition and ranks of the staff adding details on who wore white gloves as well as how footmen were compensated—based on height and good looks--not skills.  Great fodder for trivia night or useful information for those serious about etiquette.

Part two defines the modern household butler, the hotel butler and the corporate butler. It offers useful tips for the everyman on making a good first impression, how to make a proper introduction, the do's and don'ts of a handshake along with how to politely get rid of an unexpected/unwanted guest.

The next two parts cover "The Etiquette of Entertaining" and "Table Manners for the 21st Century" in an informative and entertaining manner.

The book's part five takes on the task of guiding readers through the "The Art of Good Housekeeping."  It is a detailed account of everything there is to know about housekeeping. Readers are given a month to month list of what deep cleaning tasks should be done when along with how to properly make a bed, polish shoes, fold a tablecloth, pack a suitcase, sew on a button, shower curtain etiquette and much more.

The final part of "The Butler Speaks" contains a glossary and an extensive list of food and wine pairings that could serve as a handy reference if one isn't quite sure what wine to serve with everything from a club sandwich to sashimi.

After reading the book, the burning question still remains: Is housekeeping an art?  I'll let the reader and MacPherson be the judge on this. For me, I'll enjoy my arts at the theatre and let the dust settle where it may.

Special Note:  In response to a reader comment below saying the correct term for working as a butler is "butting" whereas SMC used "Butlering" taken from the book, we contacted the author, Charles MacPherson to clear up any confusion.  Here is his response:  "It is correct to use the term “butting” however my editors at Random House felt that the word “butlering” was more commonly used and understood and better for the reader.  However I would have preferred to use the term butting where appropriate."

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