I found this book while browsing my local second hand book shop (trying to find more Trollope). As I’d always intended to read it, but had never got around to it, this seemed like a perfect opportunity.
I really enjoyed it. It’s quiet, calm, but deeply moving and very sad.
It is the summer of 1956. Stevens, an ageing butler, has embarked on a rare holiday – a six day motoring trip through the West Country. But his travels are disturbed by the memories of a lifetime in service to the late Lord Darlington …
The novel is written from the point of view of Stevens (the butler). He is reminiscing about the past and his life as a butler in service to Lord Darlington. In essence, he has spent his life striving to be a ‘great butler’, which means displaying dignity in very trying circumstances. For example, he looks back on the death of his father as his finest hour because he was able to keep providing impeccable service while his father was dying (in a tiny attic bedroom).
Lord Darlington was involved in great world affairs during the 1920s and 1930s. He organised meetings between French, German, English and American officials trying to maintain peace in Europe. It’s left to the reader to determine if he was just misguided, a dupe of the Nazis or a traitor.
Darlington Hall has a very efficient House Keeper, Miss Kenton. Although Stevens describes their relationship as professional it is clear from Miss Kenton’s responses that they have a deeper more emotional relationship. In fact, she seems to be trying to provoke a reaction from him.
The beauty of this novel is in the subtle understated writing. Stevens tells us one thing while revealing something completely different about himself. And this – the saddest thing I’ve read in a long time…
Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted 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?
What a realisation for a man who has spent his life in the pursuit of dignity.
Here are some other people’s thoughts on this book…