Matt Kamen on the love that dares not speak its name.
Set in the midst of London in the late 1800s, Black Butler follows young Ciel Phantomhive, the sole inheritor of his parents’ estate following their brutal murders. At his lowest point, he makes a Faustian pact, gaining the services of the demonic Sebastian Michaelis as his personal butler and aide. Sebastian, a master of all manner of skills – from cooking and cleaning to dancing and fisticuffs – assists Ciel in his tasks until the day his master has claimed vengeance on those responsible for his family’s suffering. Then, Ciel will surrender both his life and his immortal soul to the underworld, and Sebastian will be the one to slay him.
However, revenge will not come fast, as Ciel must also fulfil his familial obligation to the Crown, investigating all manner of unusual goings on in England and its principalities. One of the earliest cases for Master Phantomhive is investigating the murders of Jack the Ripper, precisely dating the series to exactly 1888.
First and foremost, Black Butler juxtaposes horror against polite decorum. As the series progresses, viewers are given an insight into the complex relationships and expectations of polite society in London at the time. While Ciel is promised to marry his own cousin Elizabeth (not uncommon amongst the aristocracy – marriage to a ‘commoner’ would be social suicide), the show devotes more time to male-male pairings. Sometimes this is played for laughs – a scene of Ciel being squeezed into a corset to go undercover is deliberately shot to imply Sebastian is giving him an entirely different kind of ‘service’ from behind, and a Grim Reaper is exposed as an exaggerated, camp stereotype who loudly and violently lusts after Sebastian.
There’s often a quieter, subtler examination of male closeness though. Though Ciel keeps all of his subjects at an appropriate professional distance, he clearly cares for them all, and his bond with Sebastian in particular grows from master/servant to companionship and perhaps feelings of more – even if, given the butler’s demonic nature, those feelings could never escalate. But if they could, would the rigid Victorian moral scale even allow it?
At the time of the series’ setting, male homosexuality was still a crime in the United Kingdom, and would be until almost a hundred years later until the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Female homosexuality has never been formally recognised by the law. However, upper class Victorians were a contrary bunch, their public personae a far cry from what they got up to behind closed doors.
In the 1880s, Oscar Wilde was high society’s darling, an advocate of the aesthetic movement and a noted speaker, poet, novelist and playwright. Despite being married with two sons, and adoring his family, the bisexual Wilde also had a penchant for men younger than himself, notably Lord Alfred Douglas and Canadian journalist Robbie Ross.
A scapegoat for the hypocrisy of the upper classes, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour – the maximum sentence – on 25 May 1895, having been arrested just a month earlier following a libel case surrounding his proclivities. As a public figure, Wilde was fed to the sharks, though his behaviour was not unusual amongst men of all classes – only his openness over his many loves was. Wilde would move to France following his release, where he later died in 1900, his friend Reginald Turner at his side.
With such a vicious response to open male sexuality, it’s certainly unlikely that Ciel, Sebastian or anyone else in Black Butler could indulge their repressed feelings, at least not without extensive acts of subterfuge. For anyone who’d care to read between the lines of their relationship though, the complete series of Black Butler is on sale now!
The Black Butler Complete Box is out on Monday on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.