The early Kazuo Ishiguro novel, The Remains of the Day, published in 1989, is a story that continues to preoccupy and haunt audiences, on many levels. Set in 1956, on the precipice of a new world order, its depiction of the inner workings of an English country house before and after the Second World War, from the point of view of the ageing and nostalgic head butler, Stevens, reads like a revelatory confessional. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (perhaps better known for her 2002 novel Fingersmith), published twenty years later, probes and problematizes some of the same issues of nostalgia, class, and the accepted world order of the inter- and post-war period in Britain through a disturbing ghost story set in a decaying county manor. Waters adopts a similar naïf first-person narration to that of Ishiguro’s Stevens, and Dr Faraday operates as the distorted lens through which we read the crumbling of this hierarchical way of life.
The quintessential English country house in these novels is a container and reflector of history, a living reminder of events past. Belinda Morrissey observes, of the power of domestic spaces:
“The walls and floors and ceilings are not responsible for what happened within them, but they are imbued with the force of those emotions […]”[i]
The country house serves as a monument to personal and collective histories by standing witness to moments of historical and personal significance, reflecting back memories from previous times, and seeping into the psyche of the characters and the reader. As Gaston Bachelard observes, “Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are ‘housed.’ Our soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms,’ we learn to ‘abide’ within ourselves.”[ii] We can read the self as tied to the structures of the house, with the country house retaining memories as well as events forgotten, a vessel containing wanted and unwanted evidence of the past. Depictions of these former monuments to aristocracy and empire in all their glory contrast with the physical deterioration and disrepair of their surroundings and the personal and wider cultural trauma experienced in post-WWII Britain. While both novels share the backdrop of the country house in decline, Ishiguro and Waters take different approaches in using this to colour the action of the texts and reflect the past. It is notable that the narration of both novels is undertaken not by the owners of these country houses, but by those that have served them in one capacity or another. This lends both novels an unsettling effect, as it does at times appear counterintuitive that those who serve in those settings should not have such admiration for all that the country house represents.
In The Little Stranger, the decay and ruin of Hundreds Hall is explicitly linked with the deterioration of its various inhabitants into madness and death. Links are made between the downward turn of the country estate and political and social change, with direct references to the building of council housing and the birth of the NHS. In contrast, The Remains of the Day uses its stately home setting in a more implicit way, as a quiet and mostly unobtrusive shadow, and in doing so, creates a more subtly disruptive view of the post-war hierarchical changes in society. Rather than being straightforwardly “imbued with the force of those emotions,” Darlington Hall and its rooms past and present stand as witness to both extraordinary and routine personal and cultural events, reflecting wider social and political change in doing so.
In The Remains of the Day, Stevens observes the strong hold that Darlington Hall and its memories have over him, suggesting that
“becoming preoccupied with these memories…is perhaps a little foolish.”
Even with the physical distance of his touring holiday of the English countryside, the country house exerts a pull on Stevens’ conscious and is the root of all his rememberings. Stevens is “diverted” by Darlington Hall, and the past that it represents, repeatedly and doggedly for the duration of his journey. The country house inhabits him even as he separates physically from it, for as Bachelard states:
[…] the houses that were lost forever continue to live on in us; that they insist in us in order to live again, as though they expected us to give them a supplement of living […] We consider the past, and a sort of remorse at not having lived profoundly enough in the old house fills our hearts, comes up from the past, overwhelms us.[iii]
Stevens’ entire narrative is laden with the sometimes poignant and sometimes arrogant disappointment “of not having lived profoundly enough”, always implied but not explicitly stated by his depiction of life in the country house.
Referring constantly to the past in relation to the present, he effectively lives in the repository created by Darlington Hall, even as he tours the West Country in his journey to meet Miss Kenton, his former housekeeper. His constant deference to the past is linked with a yearning for alternative outcomes in the present, and his narration always refers to Miss Kenton by her maiden name, even though she has been Mrs Benn for decades. The deliberateness of this appellation is significant, signalling a refusal to accept the reality or the outcomes of his actions, his coldness and mistakes of the past. The Darlington Hall Stevens describes serves as both a vessel of nostalgia and as a symbol of lost values of certainty, honour, and “good breeding”, as he puts it:
The butler’s pantry, as far as I am concerned, is a crucial office, the heart of the house’s operations, not unlike a general’s headquarters during a battle, and it is imperative that all things in it are ordered – and left ordered – in precisely the way I wish them to be.
This subtly shows a disturbing aspect to Stevens’ worldview, as well as uncovering a wider political avoidance of responsibility. Stevens’ claim that his pantry is the heart of operations is more than a description of the room; it betrays his narcissism and need for validation which reverberates through the novel. The pantry serves as the site of Stevens’ identity through its logistical position in Darlington Hall. It also references Lord Darlington’s military and political guests, echoing the activities in the rest of the house. The use of military language as Stevens recalls the pantry in the pre-war years from the perspective of 1956, “operations” and “general’s headquarters”, reveals a misplaced vanity about the impersonal approach and soldierly servitude that were his hallmark in running Darlington Hall and its staff. Stevens’ memoir-narrative exhibits something of the storytelling behaviour observed by Graham MacPhee:
[…] the continuum between storytelling and ideology becomes much more distinct when viewed through the optic of responsibility, since ideology functions primarily not as a truth-telling discourse but as a way of escaping responsibility.[v]
Ishiguro implies this evasion of responsibility through Stevens’ view of the physical space of the pantry. For Stevens, the disgrace of his former employer’s fascist ideology is cause for him to find any way to dissociate himself from it, but paradoxically, there is still an irresistible desire for him to hark back to grander, more dignified times, where his military hold over the serving staff at Darlington Hall could mirror Lord Darlington’s political machinations. In describing the rooms where he works, their functions and his attitude to this, his language also creates shadows and discomfort for the reader in its attempted justification of subservience and unquestioning loyalty. Gillian Rose notes that Stevens’ ideological ‘twinning’ of the butler’s pantry with a military headquarters creates unease,
The attractions of German Nazism are present in microcosm in the organisation of the aristocratic household as a fascist corporation […] They have espoused the ideal of dignity as unstinting service to the noble Lord, and have rejected the idea of dignity as the liberal, representative notion of citizenship, or as the struggles of socialism.[vi]
For a workspace to command such an “imperative” of order and precision is enough cause for the reader to examine more closely the avoidance of responsibility for the ideological totalitarianism at work here, showing that the room is more than mere location of events; it also signifies ideological impetus and reveals Stevens’ motivations and moral stance. Stevens betrays his support of systems of authoritarianism not only in his dogged defence of Lord Darlington, but in the arrangement of his ‘base of operations’ in the pantry.
Waters employs links rooms and motivations more explicitly in The Little Stranger, when Dr Faraday similarly looks back at the heyday of the country house:
The thrill of it was astonishing. I don’t mean the thrill of trespass, I mean the thrill of the house itself, which came to me from every surface […] I had never seen anything like it, outside of a church […] in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it – or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.[vii]
Faraday recalls his first illicit childhood visit to Hundreds Hall, where he vandalises a protruding decorative plaster border on a wall in the house by removing part of it. His narration of this desire to own a piece of the house also carries a similar ‘distancing of responsibility’ as described by MacPhee. Faraday’s sense of enchantment with the ideals the body of the house represents is used to justify his actions in defending it, but also in defiling it. Faraday’s explanation of his motives, comparing his need to own a souvenir from Hundreds Hall to infatuation for a girl, is as disconcerting and disingenuous as Stevens’ admiration for a military approach to routine and service.
The desire for ownership of a piece of the plaster, and Faraday comparing his boyhood self to “a man” wanting a physical token from “a girl”, explicitly brings forth ideas of dominance and inequality, and violence on the ‘female body’ of the country house. Faraday’s justification for feeling entitled to the fabric of the house is precarious and shares a distasteful similarity to Stevens’ military proclamations. His sense of superiority, shown in his remark, “a more ordinary child would not have felt,” also leads us to question this supercilious evasion of responsibility, even arrogance.
Both Stevens and Dr Faraday are apologists for an imperial world order, often looking back nostalgically to an England where hierarchy and servitude were paramount for preserving order and the Empire. The country house stands always as a reminder and container of those more certain and ordered times. McPhee writes, of The Remains of the Day:
In its obsessive reinscription of the past in the present of 1956, Stevens’ narration traces a topography of anxiety that is imbued with post-imperial melancholy. […] Now an empty shell thrown up by an earlier stage of economic globalization in the process of being superseded, the house’s ostentatious show of tradition and power can now be comfortably inhabited by the new hegemon, the United States, although only in so far as it meets a certain self-affirming image that for a period flatters its new occupier. But Stevens’ unhappy consciousness is not simply a function of decline, but is freighted with a legacy of damage and distortion inherited from the highpoint of the British Empire.[viii]
Thus, the ownership of Darlington Hall falling to an American tycoon is a physical manifestation of a changed, but still unsettling, imperial world order. The building itself has undergone change, and its once-busy rooms and hallways now stand partially unused. Hundreds Hall sees more dramatic change, and is presented as being both consumed by decay and also consuming its inhabitants. Gaston Bachelard writes:
And what an image of concentrated being we are given with this house that “clings” to its inhabitant and becomes the cell of a body with its walls close together […] From having been a refuge, it has become a redoubt.[ix]
Following an intimate conversation with the beleaguered Ayres family about the house’s past glories, Dr Faraday recalls, “I saw the house seem to swallow him [Rodney Ayres] up as he limped back into the shadowy hall.”[x] . This reminiscing is contained in the parlour, the storage space of many memories:
And I felt a flicker of impatience with them – the faintest stirring of a dark dislike – and my pleasure in the lovely room was slightly spoiled. Perhaps it was the peasant blood in me, rising. But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards.[xi]
Waters, through Faraday, makes explicit the political significance of the country house and its place in history. The disillusioned and traumatised Rodney Ayres, as Lord of Hundreds Hall, is consumed by it: both physically, when he limps back in, and mentally, as the running of the house begins to take its toll on him and he descends into madness. He represents the aristocracy, at the apex of the imperial world order, forced to make a “redoubt” of his country home. His former refuge is transformed into fortification against the social changes bombarding the previously uncontested hierarchy. Faraday, who compares the hall to church and shows an almost religious faith in the crumbling estate, pointedly relates the physical house, “my pleasure in the lovely room” as being affected and tarnished by the attitudes of its owners. The rooms and the house are elevated to more than mere bricks and mortar, and become shaded, “lovely” or “spoiled”, by the stories within. Waters uses the house to explain the changing social mood about servitude and hierarchy. The country house “swallows”, aggressively consuming the besieged Lord of the manor, leaving no ambiguity about his eventual fate, and consequently that of the ruling class he represents. The irony is that Hundreds Hall, built as a prop to the aristocracy, is the force that pulls the Ayres family apart. Faraday admires the house and its beauty, and even seeks to appropriate it, but sees that without the unquestioning service of the lower orders, Hundreds was “collapsing, like a pyramid of cards.” Waters uses the word “pyramid” rather than the more conventional “house of cards” in this case. This is a complex analogy, suggesting both a powerful hierarchy mirroring the Egyptian dynasties and their subsequent downfall, as well as invoking that gamble inherent in a pack of cards.
Conversely, Ishiguro implies the discomfort of servitude, and its subsequent unsustainability, through the staging of an awkward and intimate dinner:
On that occasion, much of the room was in darkness, and the two gentlemen were sitting side by side midway down the table – it being too broad to allow them to sit facing one another – within the pool of light cast by the candles on the table and the crackling hearth opposite. I decided to minimize my presence by standing in the shadows much further away from the table than I might usually have done. Of course, this strategy had a distinct disadvantage in that each time I moved towards the light to serve the gentlemen, my advancing footsteps would echo long and loud before I reached the table, drawing attention to my impending arrival in the most ostentatious manner […][xii]
The banqueting hall, where this scene unfolds, is too cavernous for Stevens to remain unobtrusive. Stevens reveals a duality in his motivations again: he betrays a wish to be integral to important conversations and turning points, “I moved towards the light,” contradicted by the desire to be invisible and therefore distanced from the action, “standing in the shadows”. It is the room which creates this dichotomy for Stevens, illustrating the tightrope he walks as he wavers between darkness and light, intrusion and unobtrusiveness. The country house creates the uncomfortable setting for the intimate plotting of Lord Darlington, attempting to convince his peers of the merits of supporting the emerging Nazi regime. The too-large room makes Stevens witness and accomplice to these wider historical events, and his physical awkwardness in this space, as Rose notes, “induces active recognition […] of the nihilism of disowned emotions, and the personal and political depredations at stake.”[xiii]
Interestingly, the use of the large banqueting hall is changed under the new owner and it, “no longer contains a table and that spacious room, with its high and magnificent ceiling, serves Mr Faraday well as a sort of gallery.”[xiv] The transformation, post-war, of a room which was the setting of a dark and shadowy exchange, to a “gallery”, a place where one may look and see, reflects again the change in outlook and ideology following WWII. A different kind of conference could be held in this different space, emptied and freed of its heavy furniture or “baggage”.
The physical space of the country house used by Waters and Ishiguro depicts a post-war cultural sea change. The evocation of the house as an unwitting participant in social history is similar in both novels. In The Little Stranger, Hundreds Hall is central to the interactions between characters and comes to haunt them in very palpable ways. In The Remains of the Day, Darlington Hall stands witness to events of significance and serves to reflect its past constantly through Stevens’ “obsessive reinscription”. The body of the house frames his memories and indeed his sense of identity. His awkward adjustment to its contours and shadows reflects his personal awkwardness in his own affairs as well as the uneasy relationship created between the reader and his own political positioning. At Hundreds Hall, the estate is slowly sold to the council for social housing, the physical re-drawing of the boundaries showing this monument’s diminishing importance. At Darlington Hall, the changes are subtler, but no less significant. The change of use of the rooms, and the number of rooms “under wraps”[xv] under the new American owner, reflect that the monument has changed and the power it represented in the past threads through to a different hierarchical order.
[i] Belinda Morrisey, “A Domestic Geography of Everyday Terror: Remembering and Forgetting the House I Grew Up In” in Geography and Memory Explorations in Identity, Place and Becoming ed. by Owain Jones and Joanne Garde-Hansen (Palgrave, 2012), 195-6
[ii] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at how we Experience Intimate Spaces, trans. by Maria Jolas (Beacon Press, 1994), xxxvii
[iii] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at how we Experience Intimate Spaces, trans. by Maria Jolas (Beacon Press, 1994), 56
[iv] Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (Faber and Faber, 1989), 165
[v] Graham MacPhee, ‘Escape from Responsibility: Ideology and Storytelling in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, College Literature, Volume 38, Number 1 (2011), 176-201
[vi] Gillian Rose, ‘Beginnings of the Day: Fascism and Representation’ in Modernity, Culture and ‘the Jew’ ed. by Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus (Polity Press, 1998), 249
[vii] Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (Virago, 2009), 2-3
[viii] Graham MacPhee, ‘Escape from Responsibility: Ideology and Storytelling in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, College Literature, Volume 38, Number 1 (2011), 195
[ix] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at how we Experience Intimate Spaces, trans. by Maria Jolas (Beacon Press, 1994), 45-46
[x] Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (Virago, 2009), 33
[xi] ibid. 27
[xii] Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (Faber and Faber, 1989), 72
[xiii] Gillian Rose, ‘Beginnings of the Day: Fascism and Representation’ in Modernity, Culture and ‘the Jew’ ed. by Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus (Polity Press, 1998), 249
[xiv] Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (Faber and Faber, 1989), 71
[xv] ibid. 7