“What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint.”
Oh, what a lovely little book this is. For the first 100 or so pages (almost half of the novel’s thickness), it reads like a dry accounting of the happenings at an old English house in the years between the two World Wars as told in memory by an aging butler as he drives around the pleasant English countryside. If the rest of the book had kept the same stakes and low-key nature of the first part I’d be happy to have read it, given how much I enjoyed the setting and the character of Stevens. But it doesn’t, of course. Mixed in with those memories are musings about the proper way to be a butler and what kind of a man the best butlers serve. Stevens defines himself almost entirely in relation to Mr. Darlington, the man whose house he keeps. Initially, Stevens is proud to be Mr. Darlington’s butler, as Darlington works tirelessly towards keeping relations between Britain and Germany intact. It’s an admirable cause, but things don’t go quite as planned.
Stevens isn’t just riding around the country for no good reason. One of the best things about this book is that, through the conversation he has with us, the readers, we learn almost everything there is to learn about him. He rarely comments on emotional or interpersonal happenings, just as any well-trained butler would avoid doing. What he doesn’t say, however, says a lot. Outside of the actions of Mr. Darlington, there’s a co-worker that provides some push-back to Stevens’ strictly business nature, Miss Kenton. She’s a bit younger than he and is the only real mirror by which we can see how one event or another makes him feel. There may also be a romance there, though Stevens would never admit to such a sordid possibility. In fact, it’s hard to tell if he would even recognize the potential romance that may blossom between them. He is consistently dignified, to the point that the end of his journey is a call on the former Miss Kenton to see if her marriage issues would maybe result in her wanting to rejoin him at Darlington Hall.
The book adapts his quiet, thoughtful nature. It meanders as he travels down the country lanes whose hedges mask the surrounding landscape much like how Stevens masked his own feelings in the service of another. The second half of the book builds doubts and makes us question if Stevens is really being as forthcoming as he seems to be. The book pulls all of its strands together in a lovely closing 20 pages which at once conclude it definitively and lets us in on the delicate and precise motions going on behind the scenes to get everything on display working like a well-served meal at an old British house.