It is sometimes said that butlers only truly exist in England. Other countries, whatever title is actually used, have only manservants. I tend to believe this is true. Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of emotional restraint which only the English race are capable of. (p. 43)
Thus does Stevens, a butler on a fine English estate, describe the dignity and restraint he sees as essential elements of the truly great butlers -- a title he will not allow himself to claim, although it is probably deserved. Stevens spent 30 years in service at Darlington Hall, beginning in the 1920s. He did all his master asked of him, with complete decorum and the much-admired restraint. He was assisted by a housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who left after many years to marry and have a family of her own. The novel begins with Stevens taking a rare holiday, a trip across the country to visit Miss Kenton. A recent letter from her led him to believe she would be interested in returning to service at Darlington Hall. The letter resurrected memories and emotions; long suppressed in the interest of dignity and restraint. During Stevens' journey, he relives his years serving Lord Darlington, and his relationship with Miss Kenton.
The story is told entirely in Stevens' voice. Ishiguro has a way of making the situation perfectly plain to the reader, even though much is left unsaid. The reader sees a side of Lord Darlington that Stevens himself was unable to acknowledge. And his feelings for Miss Kenton are crystal clear, even though they never break through his reserved exterior. I nearly cried when he and Miss Kenton parted company the first time, and their reunion was heavily laden with missed opportunity and dashed hopes that once again were quite moving.
I was worried that this book would be spoiled by having seen the film many years ago. And while I couldn't help envisioning Stevens just as he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, I still found myself immersed in this book as if experiencing the story for the first time. Wonderful, emotional, reading. ( )