Rating: 4 Stars
It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.
The war is over and Britain has changed. The great houses are no longer what they used to be. Without the money to maintain them and without the army of staff that worked there, they are being sold.
Mr Stevens is an old school butler. for years, he has served Lord Darlington at Darlington Hall. He witnessed Darlington’s political plans. He was there at his fall, when they went wrong.
Now Darlington Hall is owned by an American and Mr Stevens feels lost in this new world. When a letter from an old friend, Miss Kenton, arrives, he decides to take the opportunity to travel to her. It’s a travel through the English landscape, but also into his own past.
The Remains of the Day was a beautiful book. It starts off light-heartedly. Our narrator is Mr Stevens himself and his tone of voice perfectly evokes an English butler.
Perhaps I was expected to laugh heartily; or indeed, reciprocate with some remark of my own. This last possibility is one that has given me some concern over these months, and is something about which I still feel undecided. For it may well be that in America, it is all part of what is considered good professional service that an employee provide entertaining banter.
It is brilliantly fun, particularly because he seems to struggle with grasping the basics of common human interaction and emotion.
But as the story progressed, it got more and more heartbreaking.
Mr Stevens lives for his work. He is deeply preoccupied with what makes a ‘great’ butler. It is a topic close to his heart and one he discusses at length. His ultimate goal is to strive to become one.
He has no life outside of work. He doesn’t have friends. What friends he had, he met through work. He discussed work with them. And almost everyone he talks about, everyone he remembers fondly, he has lost contact with.
When two or three such persons were gathered together at our servants’ hall – I mean of the calibre of say, Mr Graham, with whom now, sadly, I seem to have lost touch – we would have some of the most stimulating and intelligent debates on every aspect of our vocation.
Except for Miss Kenton, who is actually married and called Mrs Benton, he doesn’t know where anyone else is.
He lived for Lord Darlington. He believed him to be a great man. However, before the war he dealt with the Nazis and afterwards, people condemned him for it. He died disgraced. And Stevens feels his disgrace as something personal. All his ambitions were tied up in work and now, with his old employer dead, his plans unfulfilled, he has nothing to show for that time.
And as far as I am concerned, I carried out my duties to the best of my abilities, indeed to a standard which many may consider ‘first rate’. It is hardly my fault if his lordship’s life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste – and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account.
But what was truly heartbreaking was the relationship between Miss Kenton and Mr Stevens. She loved him and he loved her. But he is such an emotionally unavailable man. It was terrible to read how he interacted. How he couldn’t express anything.
After her aunt died, he is determined to give her his condolences. What comes out of his mouth, instead, is this:
‘As a matter of fact, Miss Kenton I have to say this. I have noticed one or two things have fallen in standard just recently. I do feel you might be a little less complacent as regards new arrivals.’
In the end, what started out as a fun story turned really sad. Mr Stevens is utterly lost and utterly alone. All he has is to go back to work.
A beautifully written, heartbreaking story about one man coming to grips with his past in post-war England.