New Year’s Reading Resolutions #20
At the suggestion of his new American employer, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, Stevens, takes the car and sets off on a tour of the 1950s English countryside. What Mr Faraday doesn’t know is that Stevens has an object in mind beyond mere holidaying: a visit to his former colleague Miss Kenton, to gauge her willingness to leave her unhappy marriage for good and solve his staff shortage by returning to her post as housekeeper. The trip to Cornwall sets off a journey into the past, as Stevens looks back to the height of his career, a time when Lord Darlington held meetings of international importance at a bustling Hall. It was also then that Stevens senior joined the staff to see out his working days, and an outspoken new housekeeper clashed with the starched, unbending butler. And the further he gets from the Hall, the closer Stevens gets to revealing what it was that cost his former employer his reputation.
This is hands down one of the most outstanding pieces of characterisation it has ever been my privilege to read. Stevens is stiff, unemotional, over-intellectualising, and prone to rambling digressions on such topics as the nature of dignity or the ingredients of a truly great butler. Yet his narration of events past and present is completely absorbing. If not the most exciting characters in fiction, he is surely one of the most complete; so much so, that I couldn’t help thinking that in telling his story, he revealed more about himself than he intended or even suspected. Miss Kenton is also fabulous, and her verbal sparring with Stevens is always fun to read. They provide a touch of comedy to a book that is overall somewhat tragic. The tragedy lies not in events, but in Stevens’s nature, and his lack of comprehension of the fact that there can be more to life than dignity and duty. By the very end of the book he was actually starting to irritate me just a little; but it was a small flaw in an otherwise exceptional book which captures the time when English society was shifting from one where rank counted for something to one where ability was the only thing that mattered.