“I’m telling you, sir, you’ll be sorry if you don’t take a walk up there. And you never know. A couple more years and it might be too late.” This advice from a stranger on a country road to the novel’s protagonist is meant to encourage the traveler to walk up a hill and enjoy a beautiful view, but it may as well be an observation about the protagonist’s life. As Mr. Stevens, long-serving butler at the splendid Darlington Hall, travels through England on a trip to visit former housekeeper Miss Kenton, the reader is left to ponder, is it too late for him? Too late to be happy? Too late to live for himself? Is that even what he wants?
The novel opens with Stevens preparing to embark upon the road trip to visit Miss Kenton (in reality, Mrs. Benn, though he can’t bring himself to refer to her by that name) in the hopes of persuading her to come back to work at Darlington Hall. Lord Darlington having passed on, the Hall is now owned by an American, and the staff is extremely limited in comparison to what it had been in the grand days of the 1930s when Stevens and Kenton worked together. Although portions of the house have been closed off, the current staff is barely sufficient, and Stevens has noticed that minor errors have been occurring. When he receives a letter from Miss Kenton reminiscing about the time she spent at Darlington Hall and implying that she’s unhappy, it occurs to Stevens that she may be the answer to their household problem.
Through a series of flashbacks, the reader learns about Lord Darlington, life at Darlington Hall, and the relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton. Through everything, Stevens is the consummate butler, supporting his employer’s every command without any thought to himself, whether the instruction be to dismiss housemaids because they are Jewish or to speak to Darlington’s godson about the “birds and the bees.” He comports himself with that characteristic that distinguishes a great butler from a manservant; that is, dignity. Stevens opines, “Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation. For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small push, a slight stumble, and the facade will drop off to reveal the actor underneath. The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost. . . .They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity.’ ”
There it is, the great tragedy of this novel. Stevens may never step out of his role unless he is completely alone, thus condemning himself to a solitary life of never confiding in or becoming close to anyone. He condemns himself to burying his feelings for Miss Kenton, though his affection is obvious from the very first pages, when he unnecessarily justifies his trip to see her as being for the good of the household. He turns a blind eye to his employer’s politics, because it’s not his place to question Lord Darlington’s judgment. Dismissing the housemaids earns him Miss Kenton’s justifiable disappointment and fury (not to mention that he knows it’s wrong), but being a perfect butler is more important to Stevens than being worthy of Miss Kenton’s affections.
Even after Darlington’s death, Stevens remains loyal. He rationalizes to the reader that Lord Darlington was misunderstood, though the man’s own godson called him the “single most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country for his propaganda tricks.” He dismisses the frequent presence of German Ambassador Ribbentrop at Darlington Hall on the grounds that Darlington was not the only Englishman to exchange hospitality with Berlin (likely, a very true point). Indeed, Darlington’s greatest sin seems to have been naiveté, a point highlighted by a visiting American to one of the early “conferences” held at the Hall. “His lordship here is an amateur. . . . .All you decent, well-meaning gentlemen, let me ask you, have you any idea what sort of place the world is becoming around you? The days when you could act out of your noble instincts are over.”
Under this setting of political intrigue lies the most smoldering love story in which nary so much as a touch is ever shared. The unspoken passion plays out best in an exquisite scene in which Miss Kenton insists on knowing what Mr. Stevens is reading, much to his reluctance. “Then she was standing before me, and suddenly the atmosphere underwent a peculiar change–almost as though the two of us had been suddenly thrust on to some other plane of being altogether. . . . Everything around us became very still; it was my impression that Miss Kenton’s manner also underwent a sudden change; there was a strange seriousness in her expression, and it struck me that she seemed almost frightened.” (Incidentally, this scene is played magnificently by Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in the film. This is the most intimate scene between two people who never kiss that I’ve ever seen.)
The Remains of the Day is a portrait of a man who has given up every potential chance of happiness in the service of his employer, and has done so with the dignity he so values. Although he never admits to it until the final pages, there are hints throughout about how his heart is breaking. It’s so rare to read a five-star book that has also been adapted into a five-star film, and my heart is happy for it even as it’s breaking along with the protagonist’s.