GRAHAM SWIFT Mothering Sunday: A romance. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
Mothering Sunday gives us a moving exploration of a particular day, and opens up a rich look at the nature of writing.
Graham Swift’s wonderful novella concerns one particular Mothering Sunday, that of 30 March 1924.
Mothering Sunday was a sort of feudal ritual that still occurred between the wars, until the lack of servants made it fade. It was a day off for domestic staff so they could go home, presumably to be ‘mothered’.
In Graham Swift’s novel, Jane Fairchild is the maid for the Nivens, one of three middle-class Berkshire families, two of whom have lost sons in the First World War. Jane is a foundling and has no one to go home to on this particular day, so she plans to take a book and maybe go for a ride on her bike or read at home. However, Paul Sheringham offers her a different option. Unusually, he arranges for her to come to his home, empty because the older members of the three families are lunching together at a hotel, unable to cope without servants.
He is the last of three sons; his two brothers died in the war, and he is to marry Emma Hobday, the daughter of the third family, in two weeks’ time.
Jane and Paul have been meeting clandestinely for seven years and although the class distinctions and manners are still in place, he calls her his friend and they spend a great deal of time giggling together as well as discovering their sexuality. Their morning together is luminously evoked and the intimacy and affection between them are made very clear. After Paul leaves her alone in his house to do as she pleases, Swift gives us a glowing and powerful description of her explorations.
The day affects all those mentioned but Jane in particular remembers it as the start of a fulfilling life.
The novella form allows for a streamlined tale and this is a tightly woven tapestry of events and ideas. It is written with skilful precision, where every sentence opens up a path to the times and the experiences of those who were part of this Mothering Sunday. Even the opening paragraphs reveal so much: an understanding of the pain, both emotional and financial, caused by the First World War, Paul’s attitude to his parents and to Jane, as well as a landscape setting and excursion to watch a racehorse, imagined by Jane. All are offered clearly and connected delicately to the events which follow:
The sun still coming up, a red disc, over the grey downs, the air still crisp and cold, while he shared with her perhaps, a silver hip flask and, not especially stealthily, clawed her arse.
The sun of the unusually warm spring shines into his bedroom where their tryst takes place:
Warm air wafted through the open window. He had not drawn the curtains, not even out of token delicacy to her. Delicacy to her? But it wasn’t necessary. The room looked out over trees and grass and gravel. The sunshine only applauded their nakedness, dismissing all secrecy from what they were doing, though it was utterly secret.
Swift uses this tryst as a basis for his exploration of time through Jane’s thoughts and memories. We learn how she came to be working for the Nivens, what life was like for a maid at those times and we learn of her future. Swift uses her thoughts to move between the past and the future so that the ramifications and effects of Jane’s day are made very clear.
She becomes a writer and has a long life and immense success. She keeps secrets.
She had begun to read the books in the Nivens’s library and been charmed by the nature of words. She reads at first the boy’s-own-adventure stories that had belonged to the now dead sons and slowly graduates to Conrad. Swift’s little joke, I think, as Conrad is of course a writer of the ultimate boy’s-own stories. This tale has the concise power of Conrad’s stories too. Conrad is inspirational for a girl just learning the power of words, as he too had to learn a new language.
If one reads this story merely as an aspirational Cinderella story – from servant to best-selling author – the mythic aspect of Paul’s story could be lost. Swift gives many hints as to Paul’s fate in the opening section of the book, but he is never explicit – nevertheless he uses it as the basis for a rich exploration of the nature of truth in writing:
She would tell in her books many stories. She would even begin to tell, in her later careless years, stories from her own life, in such a way that you could never quite know if they were true or made up. But there was one story she would never tell.
As Swift tells of Jane’s subsequent life as a famous author, and a rather wicked and smug one at that, he slowly moves to a statement of his own position re the nature of truth:
And any writer worth her salt would lead them on and tease them, lead them up the garden path. Wasn’t it bloody obvious? It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive.
Swift gives us a moving exploration of a particular day, but also opens up a rich look at the nature of writing. I enjoyed it immensely.
Graham Swift Mothering Sunday: A romance Simon & Schuster 2017 PB 160pp $19.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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