Stevens is now staying in a cottage inn, where, last night, five or six other customers remained around the bar until late. One of them tried to banter with Stevens, who did his best to respond wittily, and was pleased when the group laughed, though belatedly and bemusedly. He has been trying to add bantering to his professional skills, so as to fulfill Mr. Farraday’s expectations; for instance, he’s been listening to a comic radio show, and whenever an odd moment arises, he tries to test himself by formulating three witticisms in response. So he was a bit disappointed that his attempt at the inn didn’t go over even better; he thinks he’ll just need to practice further.
The humor of this passage stems from the way that Stevens treats even something like witty banter as another skill to add to his professional repertoire—something he has to study as if it were a new method of dinner service or a different staff rotation. While immersed in memories from the past, Stevens is also eager to look toward his future responsibilities with a new employer who has different expectations from Lord Darlington.
Stevens now finds himself in a pleasant tearoom in Taunton, though only a few other diners are present. He can see out into the street, where there is a signpost for the village of Mursden: he recognizes this as where the firm Giffen and Co. was located. It used to make the finest silver polish available, before the development of new chemical products just before the war led to the firm’s demise.
Although Stevens has never ventured this far from Darlington Hall during his employment there, he is well acquainted with some aspects of the region through his responsibilities as butler. The disappearance of Giffen and Co. also signals the demise of an earlier aristocratic lifestyle.
During the ‘20s, when Giffen and Co. was thriving, Stevens recalls a change in mood among butlers of his generation. One great butler popularized silver as a public index of a house’s standards; after people began to marvel at his household’s dazzlingly polished silverware, other butlers throughout the country began to copy him. Some, like Mr. Jack Neighbours, made a show out of developing secret methods, but Stevens is certain those had no discernible effect.
Turning back once again to three decades earlier, Stevens recalls how the world of aristocracy and service work was already changing. Like the trends of butler service to which Stevens has already referred, dazzlingly polished silverware is described as if it were a modern-day clothing trend, both a mark of being in the know and a sign of both wealth and distinction in a “great” household.
Stevens is pleased to recall guests at Darlington Hall marveling at the silver. He recalls in particular Lord Halifax, who began to come to the house to meet with the German ambassador of the time, Herr Ribbentrop, exclaiming at the silver of Darlington Hall. A few days later, Lord Darlington told Stevens that while Halifax was at first in a bad mood that night, his delight at the silver put him into an entirely different mood, and thus possibly, Stevens thinks, may have eased his discussion with Ribbentrop.
Stevens is careful to position himself as above the petty gossip and competition of people like Mr. Neighbours, but he is hardly exempt from this realm of social jockeying. Stevens imagines there being a direct continuum between the service he provides and the important decisions and events going on around him at Darlington Hall.
Stevens is aware now, of course, of the extent of Herr Ribbentrop’s trickery, as he was part of Hitler’s plan to deceive England for as long as possible. But Stevens finds it frustrating that people talk today as if they were never taken in by Ribbentrop, as if Lord Darlington had been alone. The hypocrisy of these people would be clear if one saw their own guest lists from the 30s, often placing Ribbentrop in a place of honor.
After expressing evident pride in facilitating discussions between Lord Halifax and Ribbentrop, Stevens returns to the present and seems to remember how differently Ribbentrop is viewed now. This difference, he insists, is a hypocritical revision of history at the expense of Lord Darlington.
Stevens also finds it hypocritical that people talk as if Lord Darlington were unusual in receiving hospitality from the Nazis in those years; the most respectable ladies and gentlemen in England were doing the same. Stevens insists that the claims of Lord Darlington’s anti-Semitism, or his association with the British Union of Fascists, are entirely unfounded. Darlington came to “abhor” anti-Semitism, Stevens says, and the accusation that he barred Jewish staff from employment was entirely unfounded, except for one minor incident in the thirties, which was blown out of proportion. Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the “blackshirts” group of British fascists, only visited a few times before the true nature of the organization was made clear. Darlington was never involved with fringe figures, only inviting to his home those who had real influence in British life—including some who were Jewish.
Stevens turns to Lord Darlington’s associations with the Nazis in a tone that tries to seem nonchalant, but inevitably comes off as defensive. He mounts a defense of his former employer by seeking to depict the decades of the 1920s and the 1930s as they truly were, not as they came to be seen after the war, when the atrocities of Nazi Germany were made clear. This requires Stevens insisting on Darlington’s innocence and ignorance of what the Nazis were really after; historians, indeed, continue to disagree as to who knew—and to what extent they knew—of the Nazis’ goals. Already, Stevens’s defense of Darlington seems to be on shaky ground.
Stevens knows that some in his profession think it matters little what kind of employer one serves, but these, he thinks, are the most mediocre of butlers. He, on the other hand, takes pride in having practiced his profession at the center of great affairs.
Stevens’s insistence on Darlington’s greatness seems self-serving in this light; he can’t take pride in his profession without having served a great employer, and his former employer’s greatness has been called into question by his role in WWII. Thus, to preserve his own dignity, Stevens must exonerate Darlington in his mind.
Still, Stevens is aware that he must keep focused on the present—on serving his American employer— especially given the “small errors” that have arisen in the last few months. One occurred at breakfast last April, when Mr. Farraday simply sat down, picked up his fork, examined it, and turned back to his newspaper. Immediately, Stevens replaced the fork, so swiftly that Mr. Farraday was startled and softly said, “Ah, Stevens.” Stevens was deeply embarrassed, though he knows this and other incidents are signs only of a staff shortage: Miss Kenton’s return to Darlington Hall would allow such occurrences to stop immediately. Stevens spent last night unable to sleep, going over in his mind those passages in her letter to him.
Stevens has mentioned these small errors before, although each time he has skated over them, balancing a certain frankness with an attempt to make light of the mistakes. Although Stevens doesn’t make this connection, it’s difficult not to see in the anecdote about the silver a parallel with his father, who took such pride in polishing silver and yet who began making mistakes toward the end of his life, too. In that sense, there seems to be a certain desperation in Stevens’s belief that Miss Kenton’s return will solve everything.