I confess I haven’t read this book till a couple of weeks ago, even though it was published in 1989 and awarded the Booker Prize, and made into a highly acclaimed Merchant Ivory film in 1993 (which I did see).
When I started to read it, I wondered if I would persist. I was bored and felt stifled by the monologue of Steven the butler, the narrowness of his outlook, the snobbery of his perception of self and the wealthy and privileged men he worked for, his emotional repression and self-denial, the self-importance of his definition of himself through his position, his aspiration to be “a great butler”, undermined by his fear that he is not one; though one wonders if this is false modesty. The one focal point of tension and irony is this very narrowness and fragility of his identity, as he worries about the series of small errors he has made in the last few months, ”all without exception quite trivial in themselves,” and his inability to rise to the banter that his current American employer, Mr Farraday, tries to engage him in. Not only is he lacking in emotional intelligence and empathy, he has no sense of humour. It’s not just a clash of cultures — the English class system with the American brash, practical outlook — it’s Stevens’ lifelong training in self-abnegation and reverence for tradition and “the professional standards” of his position as a butler in a “great house”.
He embarks on an “expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination for some days”, suggested to him by Mr Farraday who is returning to America for a few weeks. Stevens’ purpose is to visit Miss Kenton, who had served as housekeeper in grander days when Lord Darlington was the owner, and who has recently written to him hinting that her marriage is over, and that she is considering returning to the Great House. His ostensible plan is to invite Miss Kenton to return to the much reduced household and help run it. As his trip unfolds, and he ruminates on the past, on his previous master, Lord Darlington’s ambiguous dealings with the Nazi movement prior to World War II, and his own relationship with his father and with Miss Kenton, it becomes clear that this is a voyage of the heart. Clear to the reader, but not to Stevens.
There are a few moments of truth for him, when he is forced to acknowledge his heartbreak on discovering that after all, Miss Kenton has decided to stay in her marriage.
… these implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed — why should I not admit it? — at that moment, my heart was breaking.
But of course, he does not tell her this. Instead, he turns to her with a smile and agrees one cannot turn back the clock, and utters soothing words as they part and her eyes fill with tears.
Another moment of truth is when he acknowledges to a retired butler he falls into conversation with on his return journey, that Lord Darlington
made his own mistakes. … He chose a certain path, it proved to be a mistaken 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?
Yet, he remains trapped in his own constructed identity as servant:
After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.
Such was his world, and such it remained at the end of the day. Hence his resolve to practice bantering, to please his master. “It occurs to me, furthermore, that bantering is hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect a professional to perform.” He hopes to be able to pleasantly surprise him on his return.
So little change happens. He gives up his constricted dream of a constrained relationship with his ex-housekeeper, returned to her servant position, and resigns himself to learning new ways of performing to please his master.
Why do I resist this book? It’s not just the stifling class and privilege system and the lack of redemption in the ending. Yes, it has irony, it allows us to see, through clever insertions of conversations with others, how limited and starved Stevens’ worldview is. It’s the severe monotony of the narrative, the lengthy disquisitions in stilted prose on the class system et al., the lack of humour, life, passion.
I have read many reviews on Goodreads which rave about this book. Me, I’d rather read Jane Austen any day, if I want an ironic portrayal of privilege, class, romance, heartbreak and pride — and prejudice.