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Servants, Masters, and the Art of Bantering

Servants, Masters, and the Art of Bantering

Mini Teaser: There is something indescribably wrong, we're compelled to feel, about a man completely enslaving his spirit to that of another man. The Remains of the Day, in both its literary and movie form, tells a highly didactic story. With all the respect d

by Author(s): Richard Grenier

Aristotle, in his Politics, mounts a spirited defense of slavery. "For that some should rule, and others be ruled, is a thing not only necessary but expedient, for from the hour of their birth some are marked for subjection, others for rule: " This duality originates "in the constitution of the universe." With qualms regarding only noblemen and free men reduced to slavery after capture in battle, Aristotle insists that the lower sorts of human being "are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master." He adds matter-of-factly that, unsuited as they are for political life as well as for the arts of both war and peace, "the use made of slaves and of tame animals is not very different."

A Booker Prize winning novel, The Remains of the Day, and now an extremely accomplished motion picture with the same title, have arisen to contest vigorously this, in the modern age, not very fashionable Aristotelian doctrine. Set as are both novel and film in one of the great houses of England in the 1920s and 1930s, with what Hollywood calls the "frame story" taking place in the postwar 1950s, both works focus not on slavery as such, of course, but on the servant class, and above all on that pinnacle of servanthood, the supreme servitor, the perfect English butler. Although a man of considerable skills and intelligence, Mr. Stevens, our butler (played marvelously in the film by Anthony Hopkins), takes great pride in not being his own man, but entirely the man of his employer, Lord Darlington (James Fox). Except for matters of a subsidiary housekeeping nature, Stevens firmly suppresses all his own opinions and thoughts and even feelings, certainly on the great events sweeping over Europe in the period leading up to the Second World War, events in which his employer, Lord Darlington, is in fact actively engaged. For Stevens's sole goal, his raison d'tre, on which is based his entire self-esteem, is to be the perfect butler. He firmly suppresses every personal desire and wish to that end. If the employer whom the perfect butler serves is himself a man of great stature, the status of the butler is naturally very largely enhanced, and this thought occasionally crosses Stevens's mind. But he realizes that this is a matter quite beyond his capacity to influence, and indeed that it would be unseemly for him to dwell too much upon it. His duty is to serve and trust his employer, and to have faith in his greatness.

Hitler, Nazi Germany, antisemitism, the occupation of the Rhineland, Munich, "peace in our time"--all of which come marching through the story of The Remains of the Day, discussed and debated by the grand guests at Darlington Hall--are not appropriate matters for our butler Stevens to concern himself with. Such matters are Lord Darlington's affair. No lesser figures than Hitler's Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, as well as certain associates of the English Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley make appearances at Darlington Hall. But Stevens, ever the perfect butler, makes a professional point of not listening to their conversation and only reports snatches of it, concerned as he is with keeping the gentlemen's glasses of port filled and making sure that the small army of footmen under his command are on their toes. Stevens's employer, Lord Darlington, is what was known in Chamberlain's time as an "appeaser," even a Nazi sympathizer and sporadic antisemite. But this is of no concern to Stevens, driven by ambition to become a "great" butler, recognized as such among his professional colleagues throughout the length and breadth of England. The parallels between the total surrender of will of the perfect butler to his employer and the total surrender of will of the Nazis to their Fuehrer are left implicit, but I believe they are the intellectual substructure of The Remains of the Day.

Another theme of The Remains of the Day, inevitably entwined with the study of the perfect servitor, is its reflections on the perfect master, on those marked out "in the constitution of the universe" to rule. In 1880, a half century before the story of The Remains of the Day begins, members of Britain's landed aristocracy were still the richest, most powerful, and most admired people in the land--perhaps in the world--individually and collectively conscious of their mastery. As Alexis de Tocqueville had realized still a further half century before that, the tide of history had turned decisively and irrevocably against aristocracy, but for a time the British nobility resisted this tide with resourcefulness and tenacity. Because their decline, when it came, was conducted gradually and relatively peacefully, in a socially responsible and public-spirited manner, with timely concessions in the national--and not their class--interest (an "epic of moderation," some have said), many Britons were not fully aware at the time of the inexorable nature of what was taking place.

But while inexorable it was also exquisitely drawn out. At the opening of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, not only the House of Lords but the House of Commons was still utterly dominated by the landowning classes. As late as 1880, when agricultural land was still the country's primary source of wealth, government surveys showed two thirds of the land in the British Isles was owned by under 11,000 people, and in Wales, 61 percent of the land was owned by only 672 people. (One can only wonder if in a shadowy sort of way this might have had some influence on the class perceptions of actor Anthony Hopkins, a Welshman of modest origins.) Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, prime ministers remained invariably landowners and their cabinets overwhelmingly patrician. It was not until the early decades of the twentieth century that the power of the aristocracy began to wane to the point where a real transference of class power took place. Following World War II, concealment was no longer possible and the aristocracy was publicly recognized as being what David Cannadine, in his masterful The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Anchor Books), calls at best an "ornamental" class, many of its leading families engaged in the somewhat humiliating "stately homes" business.

The Remains of the Day is consequently not concerned with the decline of merely the English butler, but of the British aristocracy as well. Hovering in the background, moreover, is the decline of Britain as a world power and the extinction of the British Empire. To a far greater extent than was possible in France or Germany--other great European nations once governed by their landed aristocracies--the global expanse of the British Empire had served to disguise and cushion the precipitous dwindling in both wealth and power of Britain's aristocratic class. (It was John Bright who perceptively described the British Empire, as "a system of outdoor relief for the English aristocracy.) But now the Empire, too, was gone. David Cannadine remarks on: "the remarkable coincidence between the decline of the grandees and gentry as the governing class, and the simultaneous eclipse of Britain as a great power."
One of the things that often accompanies decline is a weakening sense of reality. All things considered, The Remains of the Day offers a rather kindly portrait of Lord Darlington, if he is to be taken as typical of his class in the 1920s and 1930s, the last period in which British aristocrats might even appear to be the lords of creation. Lord Darlington is lofty, snobbish, ignorant, gullible, foolish. He emerges from the Great War with the feeling that it would not be sportsmanlike to take advantage of the defeated foe. Members of the German aristocracy who had valiantly fought the war were, after all, chaps like himself and it would be downright mean-spirited to humiliate them. As the 1930s advance he wants ardently to avoid engaging in another butchery with them. Lord Darlington is naive, and doesn't have the faintest inkling of what kind of people the Nazis are, but he is not vicious. The actual British aristocracy between the wars, although there was considerable diversity, produced some far less attractive characters. Scions of a decaying social order, sometimes desperate, they all too often fell under the spell of Continental authoritarianism. Even Winston Churchill, in his Romanes lecture at Oxford in 1930, said that Parliament could no longer deal with economic problems and that new structures of executive government were needed.

For many British aristocrats, fascism was merely the recreation in a modern, national setting of the benevolent paternalism of the landed estate of an earlier period. Among British admirers of Mussolini or Hitler or both were the Dukes of Bedford, Manchester, and Northumberland, as well as Lords Londonderry, Lymington, Lothian, Mount Temple, Robert Cecil, Erroll, Strathspey, Tollemache, Ladies Downe and Pearson ... and of course, Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. Perhaps the best known in America of these marginalized, sometimes embittered aristocrats were the various children of Lord Redesdale, the Mitford family. Diana, second wife of Oswald Mosley, was a regular visitor to Hitler, whom she found "sweet" and "beloved." Her younger sister, Unity, met Hitler over a hundred times and wrote to Der StŸrmer: "I want everybody to know I am a Jew hater. England for the English! Out with the Jews! Heil Hitler!" Her sister Nancy Mitford, the novelist, said of Unity, "Head of bone and heart of stone," and she herself became both a Socialist and the mistress of one of De Gaulle's ministers. Still another sister, Jessica, married an American Jew and became a Communist (and stubbornly remained one until the distasteful softening of the Soviet Union during the age of Mikhail Gorbachev). Compared to such 1930s British aristocrats, Lord Darlington seems pretty benign.

The personalities who produced The Remains of the Day, first the novel and then the movie, are a fetching group. Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who writes entirely in English, having lived in England since the age of six, has written two previous novels, one concerning Japanese in England and the other Japanese in Japan. The Remains of the Day is his first work on an entirely English subject, and although we might wonder if his knowledge of Japan's formidably stratified class system infuses in some way the present novel, or partly explains his choice of subject matter, he has an impressive knowledge of and feel for the social gradations and niceties of the serving class of Britain's "great houses." In the view of Cyril Dickman, Buckingham Palace's recently retired Palace Steward (i.e. butler), who served no less a person than Queen Elizabeth II and was technical consultant to The Remains of the Day, butlers are in simple fact a dying breed, as the country's great houses employing both butler and battalions of highly specialized underbutlers, cooks, gardeners, chauffeurs, footmen, chambermaids, kitchen maids, etc. are themselves a dying institution. The butler of Badminton House, one of the great houses in which The Remains of the Day was shot, says that today there are properly speaking no more than eighty butlers in the whole country.

The makers of the motion picture are as cosmopolitan as Ishiguro. The team of producer Ismail Merchant (a Muslim from Bombay), director James Ivory (a native-born Californian, once expatriated to India), and novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (a German Jewish refugee in England, later married to an Indian architect) are a fearless and persistent little trio who, operating for decades on the fringes of the commercial movie world and only in the last few years ascending to the realm of big money and major acting stars, have made a real contribution to film history. Most relationships in show business today are ad hoc affairs, even loyal and devoted partners often breaking up not long after the money starts rolling in. But Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala have stuck together now for over thirty years.

The traditional Hollywood view that writers are a "necessary evil" is disproven in this case. Despite Merchant's and Ivory's undoubted contribution and talent, the essential reason for the trio's individual style and now its substantial success seems to reside in the gifts of the most retiring member of the group, Ruth Jhabvala. Of Polish Jewish descent, her family had established itself in Germany only to flee the Nazis when Ruth was ten--an experience about which, for reasons she says she herself does not understand, she has written nothing. Grown to adulthood in England, and after taking a degree in English at London University, Ruth Prawer married her Indian architect and was soon off with her husband to India, another highly stratified society. There she had three children and--this odd, shy little bird of a woman--began to write a series of tart, ironic novels and short stories about Indians and India.

Merchant and Ivory, meanwhile, having decided to make English-language films aspiring to world distribution from their base in India, were having a hard time getting started, despite help from India's great director Satyajit Ray. But they introduced themselves to Ruth Jhabvala, whose reputation in India was growing, and she agreed in 1961 to adapt one of her published novels, The Householder, for their first film. They've been together ever since. The trio's first international success--if only on the "art movie" circuit--was The Shakespeare Wallah, now considered a classic. About a tiny, English family acting company sadly touring the remains of the British Raj performing Shakespeare for Indian schoolboys, it would be hard to think of a more poignant symbol of Britain's decline. The trio's second success, Autobiography of a Princess, was once again about the mournful remains of Empire, with an Indian princess, in exile in London, reminiscing about her grand days in India.

The first film of theirs to attract a substantial theatrical audience was an adaptation of Henry James's The Europeans, starring Lee Remick, and most of their subsequent achievements have been film adaptations of recognized literary works, particularly those of Henry James and E.M. Forster. The team has stumbled badly only once, in bizarrely turning on its head Henry James' deeply conservative The Bostonians, modishly attempting to transform it into a feminist tract, with Vanessa Redgrave shrilly rallying her feminist legions. This failed. But their other films, which include E.M. Forster's posthumous homosexual novel, Maurice, and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (this last adapted from the novels of Evan S. Connell), have won literally dozens of major awards in London, Venice, Berlin, New York, and even Hollywood.

The three partners hit the glory road in 1986 with E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, (with Maggie Smith and Daniel Day-Lewis), which became a genuine box-office hit, something quite new for the threesome. Partly in consequence of this commercial success, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three, including an Award for Ruth Jhabvala's screenplay. An adaptation of Forster's Howard's End in 1992 did even better, being nominated this time for nine Academy Awards, and again winning three, this time including the Best Actress Award for Emma Thompson and, again, an Award for Ruth Jhabvala's screenplay. A consistent and attractive feature of almost all these Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films, whether or not adapted from famous novels, is what can only be called their high literary quality. "Literary" is often a derogatory word in the mouths of film critics, meaning that the movie in question is all in the writing and lacks cinematographic authenticity. But these Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaborations are literary in the sense that, unlike most movies, they almost never stoop to the vulgar conventions of popular fiction. More than once when he was reviewing a trashy popular novel, the great critic Edmund Wilson would say that it was so bad it was like "a movie." If such a remark would have rather less meaning today, it is thanks in part to the works of Ruth Jhabvala, Ismail Merchant, and James Ivory, some of whose films are actually superior to the original novel.

The three partners, having begun their relationship in India, have witnessed at first hand the collapse of both an empire and a ruling social class, and, like Kazuo Ishiguro, have extensive experience in examining cultural and social structures as outsiders: Ivory in India, Merchant in America, and Ruth Jhabvala as almost the perpetual outsider, a Polish Jew in Germany, a German Jew in England, only to become an Englishwoman in India. For good measure, stage director Mike Nichols, co-producer of The Remains of the Day, is another German Jew whose family fled Nazi Germany, in his case to America.

There is some sense in the remark, made with variations by a number of literary critics, that Kazuo Ishiguro's novel is a tragedy disguised as a comedy of manners, but no sense at all in the assertion that the work is "ambiguous." The story is told by Stevens himself, in a pompous English butler's language that for perhaps half of the book seems pure parody. (He always refers to his corporeal presence as "my person.") The novel's "frame story" begins and ends in the 1950s. Lord Darlington has died and the new master of Darlington Hall is a wealthy American gentleman named Mr. Farraday. The mere falling of a great, aristocratic British home into the hands of a wealthy American is in itself an eloquent symbol of a disappearing social order.

Mr. Farraday, in any event, has a propensity to "banter." This worries Stevens, who while feeling that, as the perfect butler, he should provide Mr. Farraday with whatever it is he desires, he has never before been called upon to banter.

"I would smile in the correct manner whenever I detected the bantering tone in his voice," Stevens says of Mr. Farraday. "Nevertheless, I could never be sure exactly what was required of me on these occasions. Perhaps I was expected to laugh heartily; or indeed, reciprocate with some remark of my own. This last possibility is one that has given me some concern over these months, and is something about which I still feel undecided. For it may well be that in America, it is all part of what is considered good professional service that an employee provide entertaining banter." And the entire first chapter of The Remains of the Day is dominated by attempts on Stevens's part to school himself in the art of bantering, which worries him a good deal. "It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one's work to take in duties not traditionally within one's realm," he says, "but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate." Stevens looks forward to visits to Darlington Hall of other gentlemen, friends of Mr. Farraday, so that he can ask the opinion of their valet-butlers, the leading members of the profession, on this question of bantering. Thus is the foible of the new American master put to brilliant use to illuminate the uncertainties that accompany the dissolution and replacement of a social order.

Stevens is operating Darlington Hall with a greatly reduced staff in the 1950s and receives a letter from an excellent former Darlington Hall housekeeper, a Miss Kenton, who has left her husband somewhere in the West Country and seems to miss the old days. He conceives of the idea of recruiting her to resume her old position. For his recruiting trip to the West Country Mr. Farraday offers Stevens his Ford automobile (in the film a Daimler), and Stevens sets off by road to find Miss Kenton and induce her to return to Darlington Hall. The novel is nominally the record of Stevens's journey: Salisbury, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall ... At each stage we are given the details of Stevens's lodgings, his circumscribed social adventures, his motoring (he runs out of first water then "petrol"), as well as a series of Stevens's interior monologues on his profession, and particularly on what constitutes "greatness" in a butler.

We learn much in Stevens's ruminations about greatness. We learn of the Hayes Society of great butlers, forced to close in the 1930s, "many feeling its power had become too great." The most crucial criterion for membership in the Hayes Society was that the applicant "be possessed of a dignity in keeping with his position." Stevens tells us of many long evenings spent by leading members of his profession debating the question of dignity. Was it in-born? Could it be learned? Stevens modestly posits that his own father, a butler before him, and a character in both book and film, was, despite certain imperfections in accomplishing elaborate constructions of English syntax, the true embodiment of dignity. The example he offers is that his father was once called upon to attend a general, an unrefined man and clumsy military leader, responsible for the death of Stevens's older brother, a soldier during the Boer War--killed while carrying out, furthermore, a most "un-British" attack on a civilian Boer settlement. Yet not for one moment did Stevens's father treat this despicable figure with anything but the most exquisite attentiveness and courtesy. For, says Stevens, what is crucial is an ability not to abandon one's professional role. Great butlers "must inhabit their professional role to the utmost." It is at moments such as his father's flawless performance attending the despicable general, says Stevens, that one realizes, as with the English landscape seen at its best, that one is in the presence of greatness.

The film of The Remains of the Day, while retaining the novel's story line, as well as its ultimate meaning and impact, is a substantially different work from the novel. Completely gone is the comedy-of-manners aspect of the latter. Gone as well is the element of parody. The film has no "voice over," so the comically sententious tone of Stevens's language and narrative has disappeared, as have his philosophical investigations into the greatness of butlers. More important perhaps, the film contains no contrast of light and dark, none of the novel's technique of revealing somber, even tragic events through a screen of satire and witty trivialities. Ruth Jhabvala is very talented, but wit is not her strong suit. Henry James and E.M. Forster are far from witless writers but little of their wit remains in her adaptations. The movie version of The Remains of the Day is straight drama. The cast is superlative, containing two Academy Award winners: as Stevens, Anthony Hopkins; and as Miss Kenton, Emma Thompson. James Fox plays the lofty, gentlemanly, gullible Lord Darlington, and Christopher Reeves, whose demeanor resembles that of Vice President Al Gore more with every movie, plays a synthesized character, conflating an American senator who visits Darlington Hall in the pre-war years--and who is very critical of these pro-Nazi British aristocrats--and Mr. Farraday, the wealthy American who buys Darlington Hall and becomes Stevens's postwar employer. In the film, Stevens's new American employer does not banter.

But what the film loses in humor, it gains in dramatic power--though without an extraordinary performance by Hopkins it is hard to see how the movie would have held together. In the novel, "Stevens," after all, is a parody, an artificial character, like P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves. I don't believe there could have been a butler in modern England capable of effacing his personality and surrendering his being so completely to his employer as Stevens is. His dedication is so total it resembles that of followers of Hammas or Hezbollah surrendering their beings to the will of Allah. With the cameras observing every move, Hopkins must play Stevens as a real person, and what is remarkable about his performance is that one can actually see all the emotions and feelings that he is painfully suppressing. Hopkins somehow makes the butler not only credible but, as the story unfolds, a tragic figure.

The novel is in effect made up of a series of flashbacks, at least one per chapter. The film is much more connected. The conflicts and clashes among Darlington Hall's servants, which in the novel are stylized and satirical, in the film become grim. When Lord Darlington falls under the influence of Sir Oswald Mosley, a fierce antisemite, he dismisses two Jewish housemaids from his service. Miss Kenton objects strongly, but Stevens sees nothing amiss. Later, when Lord Darlington has second thoughts on the matter, deciding that dismissing the girls because they're Jewish was perhaps not sporting, Stevens, speaking to Miss Kenton, claims that he, too, was distressed at the affair--distress of which he'd shown no sign. Stevens had said, in fact, that Lord Darlington had made a study of the Jewish question, and that if Lord Darlington had concluded Jews were bad people and that one must dismiss them from one's service, then one must trust Lord Darlington. Trust was important, one must trust one's employer. This incident is hardly a laughing matter in the novel, but after all it is Stevens who is telling the story, arranging the account so it will not to be too unflattering to himself. Acted out in the film, the scene is horrible, and Stevens--on this and on several other occasions--seems little short of a monster.

At the very end of the novel, in the last half dozen pages, Stevens's world comes unstuck. It has actually been unstuck for some time, but he finally admits it to himself--if only for an instant. There is first the business of Miss Kenton. What is revealed to the reader at the novel's end--the whole tale having been told by Stevens in such a manner as to conceal this, from himself as well as from the reader--is that he has been motoring all the way across England to fetch Miss Kenton for a very simple reason. He loves her. Despite his repeated insistence that all he wants her for is her services as a housekeeper, all for the good of Darlington Hall, he wants her for herself--and for himself. Unable to hide behind the artifice of narrative, once again Hopkins must act this out in front of the camera, and produces a virtuoso creation of the self-deceived man, unaware of his own motives. When he finally finds Miss Kenton at the seaside town of Weymouth, he manages to tell her in his stilted, inflexibly formal way that she seems terribly unhappy. She answers that, although married now and resolved not to leave her husband, she sometimes thinks she might have had a better life, "a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens." But, she adds sadly, and with the terrible resignation that is the other side of the impressively phlegmatic British response to adversity "One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful."

The declaration shocks Stevens, who, his composure shaken for once, suddenly realizes, "my heart was breaking." But he rapidly gets hold of himself. "You're very correct, Mrs. Benn [her married name]. Indeed, I would not be able to rest if I thought such ideas were the cause of unhappiness for you and your husband. We must each of us, as you point out, be grateful for what we do have. And from what you tell me, Mrs. Benn, you have reason to be contented. In fact ... " For this is the way Stevens talks.

Yet further scales are to fall from his eyes. Stevens has never admitted to himself that by his own standards, which call for a great butler to serve in a "distinguished" house, his whole life has been a failure, because the foolish, gullible Lord Darlington is now considered by the entire British people to have been a traitor to his country, and Stevens feels disgraced and shamed along with him. On the pier at Weymouth, looking out to sea as night falls, Stevens falls into conversation with a stranger, actually a retired butler, and tells him, "Lord Darlington wasn't a bad man. At least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided 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?"

So all is ashes. Dignity is what Stevens has craved most, and that, too, he has lost.

But he must make the best of the remains of the day, Stevens says to himself on the last page of the novel. A group of six or seven people on the pier at Weymouth catch his attention. As they laugh merrily he fancies that it is because they have somehow acquired the skill of bantering. He listens to them as they exchange one bantering remark after another, and thinks, "Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in, particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth." The story ends with Stevens resolving to devote himself to developing his bantering skills with more commitment.

The full dialogue of these last scenes is absent from the film. I give the lines here because even without them, in a remarkable acting tour de force, Anthony Hopkins has managed to convey their meaning, that and a sense of the most humiliating human failure. There is something indescribably wrong, we're compelled to feel, about a man completely enslaving his spirit to that of another man. The Remains of the Day, in both its literary and movie form, tells a highly didactic story. With all the respect due service and loyalty, it is about the humiliation of servitude.

Essay Types: Book Review