Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Graham Swift, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting

‘Mothering Sunday: A Romance’ by Graham Swift

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.

For other takes on Mothering Sunday, please see Brona’s review and Lisa’s review.

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.

20 thoughts on “‘Mothering Sunday: A Romance’ by Graham Swift”

  1. I absolutely loved this book. Saw the film version last year and it was almost (but not quite) as good as the book – well worth watching though.


  2. I’m so pleased you got to this book Kim, it is still one of my favourites since I started blogging. I had the intention at the time of rereading, but of course I haven’t. And I had forgotten about the movie, until Kate’s prompt.


    1. I googled the movie following Kate’s comment and had expected I might be able to find it on a streaming service, but looks like it’s a cinema release and will only be out this coming Thursday (June 2) in Australia. How timely was my book review? LOL. Not sure I’m brave enough to go to the cinema though…


  3. One of my favourite books, an annual re-read, actually, I might just pick it up again this evening. Thanks for your review – for such a slim book, and apparently simply story – it’s an incredibly lovely and rewarding read.


  4. I think it is preposterous that a guy in the C21st should purport to know what a young female servant was thinking 100 years ago, let alone the likelihood (or unlikelihood) of her being in an equal, consensual arrangement with her employer. And yet you and Bron and Kate all liked it! So what would I know.


    1. Lol. It’s called fiction, Bill, and an author can use their IMAGINATION to write about other points of view, periods in time etc. The affair might be consensual but can’t be made public because the classes aren’t supposed to mix like this. Plus, we never quite get to hear from Paul so it may well be that he has absolutely no feelings for Jane, he’s just using her for sex.


  5. Lovely review of a really beautiful book, Kim. I think you’ve captured the novella’s languid feel to perfection. Like Kate, I really enjoyed the film – the performances are very good, and for the most part it’s a relatively faithful adaptation of the book, which always helps. Well worth seeking out when it’s released in Aus.


  6. I read this one too for a book club and then also saw the recent movie. I thought the novel starts off a bit slow but then gets more interesting as Jane’s life opens up. I like how the story has a haunting quality to it — about a past event in one’s life. It reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan’s novels. Here are my thoughts here:


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