I was a little biased before I started this book. It is impossible to escape the hype – it is a Booker prize winner! But two points – the ‘slimness’ of the book, (!) and the overall premise – a butler’s reminisces – made me wonder about how good it would be. Silly me, I realised long before the book was finished.
The premise is indeed that – Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall sets out on a ‘motoring’ tour at the suggestion of his new employer Mr.Farraday. In addition to some leisure time before he implements a new (and much reduced) staff plan, Stevens also looks forward to meeting and recruiting the mansion’s former housekeeper Miss Kenton, who had left the service to get married. He is hopeful of achieving this end thanks to a letter he has received from her which hints at some dissatisfaction in her life and a desire to be back at Darlington Hall.
The year is 1956, and this is as close to a roadtrip I have read of in that era. The narrative, in the first person, is as revealing of the perfect butler qualities of Stevens as the actual stories he shares. This is actually the triumph of the author – the masterly control over every said and unsaid word of the protagonist. The book takes us through the events of the trip itself as well as anecdotes from the past – when Stevens was still serving Lord Darlington. These tales bring to light the political intrigues at Darlington Hall as well as Stevens’ relationships with those around him – primarily his employer, and Miss Kenton. Hindsight gives Stevens (and the reader) a much different perspective of events from the time they actually occurred. We are able to see things much more clearly, something Stevens failed to do then.
It isn’t that Stevens is not an intelligent person, but his trust in the intelligence of his employer prevents him from stepping in and potentially changing the course of Lord Darlington’s future. That, a sense of duty and a notion of one’s limits. It is the same set of things that also prevent him from expressing or acknowledging his feelings for Miss. Kenton. Stevens’ bouts of introspection are also proof of his intelligence. He is objective enough to catch himself ‘lying’ about his association with Lord Darlington, and almost confesses to himself that he is probably ashamed of it because of the stories being told about his employer in the current day.
To me, the book seemed to be as much about the choices we make as it is about a particular people and culture inhabiting a certain place at a certain time. On the latter, Lord Darlington is probably the last of a kind – in terms of his sense of nobility and fair play. (as opposed to say the American representative Mr.Lewis) So is Stevens, he himself acknowledges the changing nature of the butler’s role in England. But what I really liked the book for is its way of bringing out the role of choices in shaping a life – Lord Darlington genuinely believed his actions would prevent another war. Stevens believed that the way he played his role gave him dignity. Both were wrong, and it is best summed by these lines from towards the end of the book – “You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”
At the end of the book, Stevens chooses to ‘not look back so much’, ‘adopt a more positive outlook’ and ‘try to make the best of what remains of my day’. I think it affected me even more because of the time I’m reading this book – I can relate to the circumstances, but I dare say that the poignancy of this book is something that will remain with everyone who reads it.