Mothering Sunday was my last read of December and therefore my final read of 2016. I have seen it appear on a few best of lists in the last couple of weeks – and I can understand why – it is a small novel of brilliant subtlety. This only the third Graham Swift novel I have read, and it reminds me what an excellent writer he is. I really should explore more.
I am purposely keeping this review short – this is a novel I wouldn’t want to spoil for those who haven’t read it yet.
The Majority of the novel takes place on one day, March 30th 1924, a day where the sun shines as if it were June. It is Mothering Sunday, the day when domestic staff are given a whole day to themselves. The day, when traditionally they go home to their mothers, a day when their employers must make other arrangements.
Throughout the novel, Swift drops in little glimpses of the past and the future, and in this way slowly builds up a portrait of a remarkable woman, who throws off the yoke of her birth, to become the sort of person she never would have dreamed of in her youth.
Jane Fairchild has been in service as a housemaid with the Nivens since she was sixteen. As an orphan, she has no mother to visit on Mothering Sunday, the entire day is her own. As the other servants of the district head off for a visit home, Jane has other plans entirely. She was going to have a day of quiet reading in the garden, Jane has taken to borrowing – with permission – books from the Nivens’ library. The telephone rings, and the day is changed.
“She descended the stairs, her fingers stroking the rail more out of delicate assessment than to steady herself. Where the stairs turned, stair rods gleamed. Ethel was no slouch. Below, the hall seemed to tense at her approach. Objects might have scuttled and retreated. They had never witnessed anything like this before. A naked woman coming down the stairs!”
Jane cycles off to Upleigh – a large neighbouring property, cycling right up to the front door, she is greeted happily by Paul Sheringham, the son of the house, a young man a year older than herself, his future so very different to hers. The Sheringhams are friends of the Nivens, who are all spending their difficult, servant-less day together in Henley.
“It was March 1924. It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June. And it must have been a little after noon. A window was flung open, and he walked, unclad, across the sun-filled room as carelessly as any unclad animal. It was his room, wasn’t it? He could do what he liked in it. He clearly could. And she had never been in it before, and never would again.
And she was naked too.”
Jane and Paul indulge in a morning of illicit passion. Later, while wondering about the Upleigh housemaid who will change and wash Paul’s bed sheets Jane lies back lazily, watching him dress. Paul is due to meet his fiancé and some friends for lunch, yet he appears in no hurry. In just two weeks Paul will be getting married to Emma, though he and Jane have been secret lovers for years.
By the end of that day Jane’s world will have shifted a little – and she will have taken a significant step toward the woman she will become.
“Not that it was really so much – the knowing and seeing – even in seventy, eighty, ninety years. ‘Her maid’s years,’ ‘her Oxford years,’ ‘her London years,’ ‘her Donald years.’ You lived in your own little cranny. Didn’t you?”
I loved the subtle, sensual quality of the prose, and the way Swift moves the narrative back and forth between Jane’s present and future self. Short novels often pack as much or more of a punch than fat books, and Mothering Sunday is a case in point. Not a word is wasted, and yet Graham Swift manages to convey the entire history of one woman in around 130 pages. It is quite simply a beautiful little novel.