When I discuss The Remains of the Day, I’m going to refer to the film version. Emma Thompson plays a brilliant supporting role, and her character truly shines in the movie. Let’s dissect and compare to period dramas about servant life.
The Remains of the day: a depressing story
Stevens is an exceptionally strange man. He reads sentimental romance, is very solitary and expresses no outwards emotions. I’m quite convinced he’s a sociopath by his portrayal in the film adaptation. And then there’s Miss Kenton, his confidant and housekeeper, who tries her best to connect with him. She’s very much the opposite of Stevens; heartfelt, kindhearted and sincere. Their relationship is most unfulfilling whilst they inhabit Lord Darlington’s manor together. They argue over anything and everything, from Stevens Senior’s ability to work, to the German maids’ ability to work because of their Jewish heritage.
Eventually, she goes off to marry another man because Miss Kenton cannot bear her unrequited love for Stevens any longer. This is in part because the under-maid gets married to her sweetheart, despite being naive and poor (qualities which she dislikes). Eventually, Mr Stevens realises his mistakes; not just about serving Lord Darlington too loyally, and about the German Nazis. He meets his comrade, now Miss Benn, for lunch and then a stroll around the beach pier. They talk, about how her life has changed, highlighting the lack of change in his life. Mrs Benn remarks how her life became better once her daughter was born. As he says goodbye to her on the bus in the rain, Stevens comments that he was “too busy serving to notice” any discussion that happened. Even at that point, after his employer’s death, Stevens never once reaches out to Mrs Benn. Historically accurate? Maybe, but it lacks the passion that stories such as War and Peace has.
Downtown Abbey: the recovery of a lost plot line?
Let’s talk about Anna and Master Bates in this series. There are hints of Jane Eyre in this romantic subplot, because Master Bates is married before they meet. Like Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens, they work together. Their marriage is shadowed by the fact that Anna is late in getting married, and could be past the age of childbirth (with many miscarriages in her marriage). Fortunately, their ending has a more satisfying outcome, with understanding employers and starting a family. Downtown Abbey is set up like a happy family, as Anna is close to Mary and Edith, whilst Sybil married the chauffeur Tom. Carson and Mrs Hughes marry as well, much to the celebration of the family and staff. With Edith as an editor of a magazine and Mary in charge of the household without the need for a husband, it’s a more modern take on aristocratic life.
The conclusion? Downton Abbey places more emphasis on the lives of the noble family living there, without detaching from human emotions. Whilst Remains of the Day uncovers the secret lives of servants, whilst removing them from current household affairs (to a degree).
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