“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way”.
We just re-watched this true precursor to Downton Abbey, the Oscar-winning film with Anthony H and Emma T purposefully striding through the corridors of Lord Darlington’s stately home, with nary a dustpan out of place, and much hustle and bustle every time dinner is served. The film is a faithful portrayal of this completely marvellous book, and I cannot think of two actors who could have played it better.
Mr Stevens is one of a dying breed, a “ ‘great’ butler ”, obsessed with fulfilling his role over and beyond the call of duty, prepared to put his profession before his family and any sentimental weaknesses that may present themselves in the course of his unstinting work. Miss Kenton, meantime, is a woman of her times: a seriously hardworking housekeeper only too aware of the fragility of her situation and the paucity of choices available to her (“Then she continued in a tired voice: ‘It was cowardice, Mr Stevens. Simple cowardice. Where could I have gone? I have no family. Only my aunt. I love her dearly, but I can’t live with her for a day without feeling my whole life is wasting away”).
There is so much repression in every page of this outstanding work that at times you need to pause and take a deep breath. It’s a faultless comedy of manners that contrasts the new owner of Darlington with what came before, cleverly incorporating a wartime situation that perfectly shows Mr S at his worst when he persistently refuses to have an opinion, hiding behind his butlership – yet with the very best intentions at heart (“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…I trusted in his wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes”).
But in addition to gloriously representing a bygone time of stiff upper lip class systems and patriotism, we are witness throughout the pages of the novel to one of the most poignant cases of missed opportunities on the love front ever. “After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been” – it’s heart-rending to slowly watch the years go by, and painful to travel step by step with Mr Stevens on his pilgrimage to bring the former housekeeper back to the hall, cap in hand and on the brink of something that could see him – finally – taking fate into his own hands. Quite simply brilliant – this book should be compulsory reading.
Read in 2009.
Rating : 10/10 – A FAVOURITE READ
Winner of the 1989 Booker Prize