Fiction – hardcover; Simon & Schuster; 132 pages; 2018.
The novella Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift, pivots around one central moment: a final sexual encounter between two people from different social classes before one of them goes off to marry someone else.
Set on 30 March 1924—Mothering Sunday—the story goes beyond this date to explore what happens to each of the young lovers in the aftermath of their affair.
It’s written in the third person but told largely from the perspective of Jane Fairchild, a 22-year-old housemaid, who is romantically involved with Paul Sheringham, a handsome young man up the road who is engaged to be married to Emma Hobday, a young woman in the same social class as him.
Paul is 23, the only surviving son of an upper-class family in rural Berkshire (his brothers were killed in the Great War), and his whole life has been mapped out for him. His background — and his prospects — could not be any more different than Jane’s. Yet the pair have been secret lovers for years.
She didn’t know how he had acquired his sureness. Later, in her memory, she would marvel at it and be almost frightened by his possession of it then. It was the due of his kind? He was born to it. It came with having no other particular thing to do? Except be sure.
Despite Jane’s lack of formal education, she is a keen reader and has access to her kindly employer’s own personal library. On the day in question, she plans to read her borrowed copy of Joseph Conrad’s Youth in the spring sunshine. She’s an orphan, so has no mother to visit, but then Paul summons her for a morning rendezvous and the whole course of her life changes…
An auspicious date
Written in exquisite language, languid and sensual, the narrative continually loops back on itself so there is never any mistaking the importance of the date, repeated like a mantra, to Jane, who looks back on this particular Mothering Sunday with awe and delight and shock and grief. What enfolds on that single day has repercussions for her entire life, a life in which she becomes a successful writer and uses her affair with Paul as both inspiration and succour during her long career.
Swift is a careful stylist, shaping the story so that it seamlessly flits backwards and forwards in time, revealing Jane’s innermost feelings and desires, showing what her life was like before meeting Paul and what it becomes, years and decades later, when their romance ends.
And in highlighting the differences between British social classes, it’s easy to see how this match between a maid and a young lawyer would never be acceptable to the masses despite their clear feelings for one another. Jane, in particular, has been conditioned to behave according to her social standing and she is wary of challenging Paul, of demanding anything of him even though she’s well within her rights to do so.
It was not her place, after all, with her ghostly maid’s clothes back on again, to speak, suggest or do more than wait. Years of training had conditioned her. They are creatures of mood and whim. They might be nice to you one moment, but then— And if they snapped or barked, you must jump. Or rather take it in your stride, carry on, not seethe. Yes sir, yes madam. And always—it was half the trick—be ready for it.
As it turns out, such training holds Jane in good stead when she needs it most.
This is a beautifully told tale that is both compelling and heartbreaking. It’s richly evocative of the era and lingers in the mind long after the final page. I loved its exploration of truth and memory and of lives unlived.
If you liked this, you might also like:
‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan: Set on a single night, this novella explores the consummation of a marriage between two deeply inexperienced people.