Back in the 90s I enjoyed the movie version of this story, but I kept putting off reading the book. Normally I read the book first then decide if I want to watch the movie. But it wasn’t as easy back in the pre-internet days to keep up with new books so I watched the movie.
This book was featured in a discussion held on a friend’s blog and it is one of Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die [Note: It is now 1001+ books since the list has been updated several times in recent years]. I love “competitive reading,” as I call it. Even though this list is heavily guy-oriented and heavily British to me, I still love checking them off as one appeals to me.
Once the butler to an appeasing-isolationist, pro-Nazi aristocrat, Stevens, takes a short vacation at the suggestion of his new employer, an American. The changes to Stevens life and world at Darlington Hall, the house his new employer bought complete with staff, are forcing him to make-do with post war levels of staffing in a house built for a small village to labor in it. A letter from the former housekeeper provides the idea for the journey he takes in a car loaned by the new employer. Along the way, he discovers a bit about life outside “service” and outside the big country houses he has long labored in.
His topic of thought and of the memories. as well as of the conversations he has along the way, are all on dignity–specifically how dignity makes a butler great. Dignity takes him many places in his memories, but especially to his father–himself a butler in another great house before his ignominious end. The back-in-the day flirtations of the former housekeeper are also seen by Stevens as beneath the dignity of the butler. This keeps him from encouraging or acknowledging her acts at the time and we are given the sense that he has regret about this, though he never says so.,
But dignity combines with pride and he allows himself the egotism of not disavowing strangers of their notion that he is a great gentleman of public affairs. As this refuses to occur to him, the knowledge that Lord Darlington isn’t who he wanted him to be tries to rear its ugly head and penetrate his consciousness, but he keeps tamping it down again.
Remains of the Day [film]
It’s difficult not to give a great rating to a book that wins prestigious awards. But I found Stevens so full of himself that it was difficult at times to go on. That, I’m sure, was part of the author’s point though!
That day, that “class” of servant, the man who might have taken elocution lessons to improve his “station” in life were a thing of the past even in the era in which the story is set. The great houses would soon mostly be lost to the National Trust or worse due to horrendous death duties as well as to greater employment opportunities in factories, shops and offices. In 1900 1.5 million people were employed as domestic servants (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19544309). That’s one in three employed persons (https://www.jstor.org/stable/25580932?seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents). After the war live-in servants became rare, and the daily cleaner or “char” replaced the live-in maid. Stevens, like the house he’d run, was virtually an anachronism.