A few weeks ago a review in The Spectator praised books ‘books which have their own linguistic microclimate’; first person narratives where (after a period of jarring alteration) you find yourself thoroughly immersed in the world as seen by another deeply realised personality. The Remains of the Day is a beautifully realised example of this.
The story takes place along two timelines – in July 1956 ageing butler Stevens is on a motoring holiday to visit Miss Kenton, and on his way he reflects on his life and experience. That, however, does not come close to the heart of this novel, which is centrally concerned with Stevens himself, and his own relationships with his employer, his occupation, and (eventually) Miss Kenton herself.
Crucially, Stevens never claims to be telling us his life’s story, instead he is primarily reflecting on the question of what makes a ‘great’ butler. The answer, Stevens is certain, is dignity, which he exemplifies with an early anecdote about a butler in India who has to remove a stray tiger from the dining room, and after doing so reports back to his employer ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time and I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time’. Keep calm and carry on indeed.
The central tension at the heart of the book thus becomes Stevens attempts to live out this creed, often amusingly (his desperate paradoxical attempts to practice being spontaneously witty run through the novel), but often at excruciating personal cost. Too many details ought not be revealed here, but in two magnificently handled set-pieces the utterly unruffled narrative voice is only betrayed by the observations of other characters: “Stevens, are you alright?” “Yes, Sir, perfectly.” “You look as though you’re crying.” By that point, the reader might well be too.
This sustained reserve leads to a broken and fragmented narrative – information is drip-fed to us, often seemingly by accident. The news that Stevens’ employer Lord Darlington is heavily implicated in Nazi appeasement is interrupted by the brilliantly abrupt ‘But I drift. I was in fact discussing the silver.” One scheme of reading the novel would certainly censure Stevens for his self-denial, here and in other places – as one character laments “Tell me, Stevens, don’t you care at all?” This certainly dominates the film adaptation, which recasts the work as a love story.
To my mind, though, to make such a judgement misses the point of the novel. Our interest, like Stevens’ own, is not in what might ordinarily be called great matters, whether personal or political. Slightly ironically, and utterly against my expectations, we become more and more invested in that question of ‘great’ butlership, and of the personal costs involved. Whatever he ultimately might lack, it is impossible not to come to a profound realization of Stevens' hard-won dignity, even while acknowledging he is of a dying breed.
All this might imply the book is a very heavy read, but that does not do it justice. Once you adjust to Stevens’ bizarre ‘linguistic microclimate’, the rest of the work races by: the interwar setting will be familiar to any viewers of Downton Abbey, and the always entertaining narrative blurs comedy of manners with political intrigue. Crucially though, we are always viewing this as Stevens does. In terms of whole-heartedly embracing such a limiting but illuminating lens, The Remains of the Day must be almost peerless.