Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 Booker Prize winner The Remains of the Day sees the impeccable head butler of the English country house Darlington Hall, Mr James Stevens, embarking upon a trip into the surrounding countryside and its villages after being persuaded to take some time off by his new employer, an American by the name of Mr Farraday. Being postwar fifties England, the house is viewed by Mr Farraday as more of a quaint relic than anything and Stevens also seems to be viewed somewhat in the same light, a "genuine English butler" from the grand old days of lords and gentlemen.
Stevens decides to take the opportunity to visit an ex-employee of Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn) who worked with Stevens as head housekeeper under the original Lord Darlington during the thirties. This was in response to a letter she had sent to him, the exact contents of which the reader never sees, but which apparently told of the breakup of her marriage and the subsequent despair she had felt at the onward march of time and her fond memories of working at Darlington Hall. Stevens realises that Mrs Benn returning to work at her former post would solve many of the staff problems currently being experienced in Darlington Hall, and resolves to pay her a visit as part of his trip into the country.
As Stevens travels from village to village he recalls his own fond memories of service under Lord Darlington, memories which slowly paint a sad, all too obvious picture to the reader but to which Stevens himself seems oblivious, not due to any lack of intelligence on his part but rather because, being the very essence of English repression, he simply won't let himself. We begin to see that service to his employer Lord Darlington was Stevens' whole life, and that it was rendered unquestionably and with utmost loyalty. In his view, it was not the place of the servants to question, or even form an opinion of, their employers' decisions; their only task was to support them totally and provide the best possible service with the least possible intrusion.
Thus we see Stevens throughout his service during the prewar thirties making arrangements for Lord Darlington's various meetings of important figures as, acting out of his sense of honour and good old english sportsmanship, Darlington tries to help their former foe Germany in its sadly reduced post World War 1 state, often commenting that the Treaty of Versailles is "too harsh" and that the defeat of an enemy should be the end of the matter. Over the years, Darlington unwittingly becomes a pawn for the steadily rising Nazi party as his sympathies blind him to the fact he is being manipulated, sympathies which one cannot help thinking are perhaps motivated a little by sentiment after we hear of the tragic fate of a German friend of his due to the dire economic state of the country.
This aspect, however, takes somewhat of a back seat to a more personal realisation for Stevens. As he recalls events in the house we see him gradually drawing to Miss Kenton and she to him, only in his case as the stiff, proper butler he rationalises the small steps he allows himself to take as being in the interests of the house; for example he maintains that their evening cocoa meetings are purely to discuss matters on a professional basis. Over the years, Stevens continues seemingly oblivious to her signals, although we see a small glimmer from time to time betraying the fact that he is slowly falling in love with her, but to her constant frustration he is just too "English" to admit it, even to himself, until the heartbreaking moment Miss Kenton announces she is going to marry and all Stevens can do is offer his congratulations.
Thus it is that when Stevens receives her letter he reads a little too much between the lines, concluding that the former Miss Kenton wishes to return to work at the house. Convinced that this is the only reason he would like to see her again they arrange a meeting, and not long afterward the book comes to its inevitable yet tragic finale.
The whole story is incredibly understated, set in the countryside of England with a typically calm, stiff-upper-lipped Englishman as its main character, yet whether it is the frustration at Stevens' stiffness or the sadness at his secret, silent heartbreak, an amazing amount of feeling comes out of the pages. It is almost heart-wrenching to see him finally question his years of service for the first time, leading him to the terrible realisation that perhaps he may have wasted his life. In turns amusing, serious, and almost profound, it is a gentle tale of lost love and missed chances, an ultimately moving account of one man's long overdue reflection on the way he has spent his life.
In 1993 a Merchant-Ivory production was released starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton, to mostly favourable reviews. It did a very good job of portraying Stevens' introspective memories to the screen and captured the understated loss of the book well and, although a few details were changed and a whole extra scene was tacked onto the end, it remains admirably faithful, even word for word at times. Although, as is the case with most screen adaptations it could never truly be as good as the book, still I would definitely recommend both film and book to anyone unfamiliar with the story.