Ted loves his position as first footman at Montague Hall. He has quickly risen in the ranks and hopes one day to take on the role of Butler when Mr. Wymar retires. However, as much as Ted likes his position, he knows it is tenuous ever since he made the mistake of nearly kissing the second footman, Jimmy. Since then, Jimmy has been latched onto by Mrs. Dankworth, an evil and cruel woman who uses her position as Lady’s maid to wield great power as she and Jimmy take turns goading Ted in one mortifying exchange after another They hold that one indiscretion over his head like an ax poised to fall and Ted feels the pressure of never knowing just when they will strike.
Ted is able to barely keep himself from being targeted by Jimmy and Dankworth until Richard, the new valet, arrives. Richard has just come from London to enjoy a bit of the country and a slower paced job, and the attraction between he and Ted is mutual and electric. Unfortunately, it puts them directly in the eye of Dankworth and Jimmy—a dangerous place to be. If they are exposed, not only will they be dismissed from their jobs, but possibly imprisoned as well, for the turn of the century England does not abide men who choose to dally with men, no matter what their station in life.
Mel Gough’s new release, The Valet, takes a look at manor life below stairs just at the turn of the twentieth century in England, a time in history where any hint of homosexual attachment is still unlawful and scandalous. For poor Ted, who is just trying to keep his place at the Hall, life is doubly dangerous due to two work colleagues who have it out for him and never let him forget it. When Richard arrives, the hidden desires Ted feels explode and, for the first time, he experiences what it is like to be loved and sought after by another man. But instead of being a happy time for Ted, it ends up making him even more fearful about being caught out and punished for the way in which he wants to live his life. However, Richard is clever and determined to spare Ted any further harassment and does everything he can to shield his lover.
This novella centers solely on Ted’s point of view. With somewhat limited transitions, the story manages to cover a full year and often those jumps in time feel a bit jarring since very little else but Ted’s fear of being caught is really explored in the story. Unfortunately, by having this singular focus, the novella feels unfinished. Due to removing most of the incidental action that would surround a manor house and its occupants and narrowing it down to just this one situation, the plot becomes uneven and it is a given that somehow, despite it being 1904, these two men will live happily ever after. That is quite a stretch considering they are both servants and under close scrutiny by others.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I focused on just the nuances of their relationship and that actually made this novella very pleasant to read. I like Richard and Ted, particularly when they are together, and I really enjoy how Richard looks out after Ted and helps him avoid the machinations of Jimmy and Dankworth. Their affection for each other is the best part of the book and, despite the limited plot line and diminished storyline, it saves this novella in the end.