The Myth of the English Country House in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day

Erica Dillon '99 (English 27, 1997)

[All citations from Ishiguro and Duff refer to the Vintage International edition.]

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day opens with Stevens explaining the events leading to his motor trip to the West country, specifically to visit Miss Kenton: the American Mr. Farraday, after purchasing Darlington Hall, instructs Stevens to "recruit a new staff 'worthy of a grand old English house'" ( 6), which Farraday then amends to include only the current small staff; Stevens realizes that this size staff cannot maintain such a house, and after receiving Miss Kenton's letter, decides to ask her to return to her former position as housekeeper in order to augment his staff plan. This seemingly innocuous beginning presages the importance of Darlington Hall in every aspect of Stevens' and its owners' lives. Similarly, in Once Were Warriors, Alan Duff portrays the stately Trambert house, separated from the run-down council housing of Pine Block, as a symbol of success and positive values for Maoris. Duff twists the country house myth by allowing Beth Heke, the Maori protagonist, to achieve her dream of owning a "whole house" (2) only by embracing and teaching traditional Maori culture.

Ishiguro depicts the house from Stevens' rather deluded point of view, and so the novel reveals that the aura Darlington Hall casts resides in the eyes of this servant. Ishiguro also appears to write directly against the position that the English country house inhabited in English literature and the rhetoric of national politics, as Richard Gill describes it: "During the late thirties, in the charged atmosphere of crisis, dislocation, and violence, the satirical preoccupation with the absurdities attending the decline and fall of the great house gave way to a rather sober concern with the meaning and value of what was falling. [T]here was a sense of finality lacking in the decline of the house in England - a finality that gave a certain dignity, even tragedy, to its demise. Paradoxically, dying as a social actuality, the house was reborn, transfigured as a symbol. Divorced from the nagging injustices and complexities of its local history, the house came to represent a humane order of culture and civility, a state of community beyond the circumscriptions of nation or class" (Happy Rural Seat, 167-68).

Stevens' various representations of Darlington Hall show precisely how deeply this myth penetrated his being and the harmful repercussions it had. If, as Gill suggests, in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, the English country house "is obviously much more than a literal setting: it is the chosen emblem of what the author considers humane order and enduring values, a microcosm which has the advantage of being public and familiar" ( 7, 14), then Ishiguro seems to insert the Nazi-dupe Lord Darlington and his pathetically blind servant Stevens into this setting to take apart this myth. Positing Stevens as Darlington Hall's mouthpiece reveals the elitism inherent in this symbol: Stevens cannot enter the aristocratic community that Darlington Hall supports except as a paid servant. Unlike Lord Darlington, Stevens does not move between the general public and private realms, so his depiction of the greatness of the house clearly depends less upon actual worldly experience than upon uncritically received values (rather like Stevens' inherited "splendid suits" (10)). Stevens has always been attached to the house, and his journey away from this "hub" (115) exposes the absurdity of the so-called humane order revolving around Darlington Hall. In fact, Ishiguro places pivotal moments of Stevens' journey in architectural structures that physically diminish as he moves closer towards a realization of his own inadequate, wasted life: from Darlington Hall, to the small, "cosy" (181) Taylor residence in Moscombe, to the bus stop in Weymouth ("Inside, the paint was peeling everywhere, but the place was clean enough" (237)), to the bench on the pier where the "lights have come on" (240).

Virginia C. Kenny unintentionally illustrates the problems associated with the English country house as a symbol of civility and benign power when she writes, "The country-house ethos had the greater efficacy as a unifying metaphor because its setting - the country-house itself - was so palpably a functioning entity, bearing witness to the reality of the fusion of past, present and future social values in an everchanging but seemingly unbreakable continuum" (The Country-House Ethos in English Literature, 204). In this myth of a "functioning entity", characters like Stevens and Lord Darlington fade into labyrinthine back corridors. In Ishiguro's rendering those people who make the house function, such as Stevens, and those who attempt to ensure the continuum of certain unnamed social values, such as Lord Darlington, divorce the myth from the house and place it properly in the hands of people. (Anita Desai similarly plays on this idea of the house as continuum in In Custody when she relates the destruction of an Urdu literary tradition to the destruction of Prof. Siddiqui's family villa, the last visible remnant in Mirpore of Urdu's glorious history. Desai also focuses on the detrimental effects to family, community, and literature incured by women's continued exclusion from traditionally male realms and their limited power even within the house.)

Stevens' stay at the Taylor residence in Moscombe and his subsequent political discussion with Mr. Harry Smith, contrasts starkly with Stevens' interpretation of Darlington Hall's function in the political landscape: "the great decisions of the world are not, in fact, arrived at simply in the public chambers, or else during a handful of days given over to an international conference under the full gaze of the public and the press. Rather, debates are conducted, and crucial decisions arrived at, in the privacy and calm of the great houses of this country. What occurs under the public gaze with so much pomp and ceremony is often the conclusion, or mere ratification, of what has taken place over weeks or months within the walls of such houses. To us, then, the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them" ( 115). Despite its rough edges, the Taylor house with its combination dining and living room that Ishiguro describes as "a rather cosy room, dominated by a large, roughly hewn table of the sort one might expect to see in a farmhouse kitchen" (181), marks a public realm where people engage in political discussion with as much sincerity and seriousness as those dignitaries attending the 1923 Darlington Hall conference. Stevens inadvertently exposes that element of the country house myth which asserts that the manor reflects qualities its owners desire to appear as possessing when he allows the Moscombe group to believe that he worked on foreign political policy; Stevens' mere proximity to Darlington Hall, regardless of his position within it, lets him briefly don the aura of importance that the house ostensibly exudes. Ishiguro reveals the facades, such as Stevens' appearance on his motor trip, his impassive physical bearing, or Lord Darlington's political savvy, for what they are: roles dictated by naturalized myths rather than real relations and circumstances.

Immediately following the tribute to the English country house as the seat of civilization, Stevens describes two incidents where he denies that he had ever served Lord Darlington. These incidents attest to the changing relationship between the public and the owners of these houses as the public finds itself in a position to reevaluate certain aspects of the myth. As Mark Girouard observes, "the numerous potted biographies of county worthies, which began to be printed in local newspapers or reprinted in book form in the later nineteenth century, spotlight the other qualities which the public considered necessary for 'the beau-ideal of an English country gentleman'. [T]he entries suggest that partnership between the classes was leading towards a new type, the gentlemanly figurehead who left the brainwork to professionals" (Life in the English Country House, 271-72). Part of Lord Darlington's disgrace, then, might follow from his stepping outside the boundaries allotted him by the very ideal he benefits from. Mr. Lewis, the American senator, clearly says as much in his dinner speech at the 1923 conference: "Gentlemen like our good host still believe it's their business to meddle in matters they don't understand. You here in Europe need professionals to run your affairs" (102). Girouard also explains how the architecture of the country house changed as the public view of its owners changed: "The porticoes or sham fortifications of the early nineteenth century had acquired unwelcome connotations of arrogance, authoritarianism and ostentation. Moreover porticoes were un-English and fortifications not at all domestic. [B]ut the old English manor house supplied the answer in the form of the tower -- sufficiently dignified, sufficiently prestigious, but not at all aggressive" (Life in the English Country House, 272, 274). Stevens' encounter with Mrs. Wakefield regarding the authenticity of Darlington Hall illustrates the connection between Lord Darlington's sullied name and the house's architecture:

'Oh, Stevens, perhaps you're the one to tell me. This arch here looks seventeenth century, but isn't it the case that it was built quite recently? Perhaps during Lord Darlington's time?'

'It is possible, madam.'

'It's very beautiful. But it is probably a kind of mock period piece done only a few years ago. Isn't that right?'

'I'm not sure, madam, but that is certainly possible.'

Then, lowering her voice, Mrs Wakefield had said: 'But tell me, Stevens, what was this Lord Darlington like? Presumably you must have worked for him.'

'I didn't, madam, no.'

'Oh, I thought you did. I wonder why I thought that.'

Mrs Wakefield turned back to the arch and putting her hand to it, said: 'So we don't know for certain then. Still, it looks to me like it's mock. Very skilful, but mock.' (The Remains of the Day, 123)

Stevens passes off his inability to defend the house as "avoiding unpleasantness" (126), but in insisting that he is not ashamed by his "association" (125) with Lord Darlington, Stevens appears quite the opposite. Stevens then attempts to explain his lie to Mr. Farraday by invoking a fictitious English custom about non-disclosure of previous employment. In this encounter, Farraday verbalizes that aspect of the English country house which preserved the structures themselves, if not entirely the symbol of "the civilised use of wealth and exercise of influence" (The Country-House Ethos in English Literature, 212), during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when houses were "taxed out of existence, sold to profiteers, turned into school or clubhouse, or casually demolished" (Happy Rural Seat, 168): "'I mean to say, Stevens, this is a genuine grand old English house, isn't it? That's what I paid for. And you're a genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one. You're the real thing, aren't you? That's what I wanted, isn't that what I have?'" (The Remains of the Day, 124). This notion of authenticity, or genuineness, enters the discourse surrounding the English country house at a time when the social and economic realities that supported the myth had evolved, displacing the owners' participation in the "humane order" with the houses' passive participation in history. Girouard writes that the twenty-year depression in the farming industry (1880-1900) meant that the "landowning classes entered into an increasingly close merger with the business world. To invest in thousands of acres of land was now politically and socially unnecessary, but many people were impelled less by convenience than by romanticism. They wanted to own a country house not because it was a step on the way to Parliament but because they were in love with the idea of a country house - because it represented to them peace, tradition, beauty and dignity" (Life in the English Country House, 300-302). However, such considerations of historical authenticity still direct attention away from the exploited servants and land tenants who enabled such houses to exist in the first place. Ishiguro writes against the entire myth of the English country house as not only a symbol of civility and benign political influence, but as a naturalized myth that regulates the authenticity of Englishness.


Gill, Richard. Happy Rural Seat: The English Country House and the Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.

Kenny, Virginia C. The Country-House Ethos in English Literature 1688-1750: Themes of Personal Retreat and National Expansion. Brighton: Harvester, 1984.

Girouard, Mark. Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

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