Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (2016) Knopf (2016) 177 pp
Graham Swift won the 1996 Booker Prize for his novel Last Orders. It’s nice to see, after what several trusted friends call missteps, that Swift’s new novel Mother Sunday is getting a lot of positive attention. Even better when I also think the novel deserves the positive attention! I hope that, twenty years after Swift won the prize, we see Swift in contention again when the Man Booker Prize longlist is announced in July!
I must admit to some knowledge gaps. Not only was I unfamiliar with Graham Swift’s work (still am, but for this book), I also was completely unfamiliar with the historical holiday Mothering Sunday. All of those upstairs / downstairs television shows I’ve watched have apparently done little for me. For those steeped in ignorance as I, Mothering Sunday was (is) the fourth Sunday in Lent. On that day, observers were to visit their “mother” church, as a kind of return to roots. Relevant to Swift’s novel, servants and staff of estate homes were given this day off so they could go visit their mothers. Today, in Ireland and the United Kingdom, this is still the date folks celebrate Mother’s Day. That’s it for the history lesson.
This wonderful little novel takes place on Mothering Sunday, 1924. The twenty-two-year-old servant Jane Fairchild has no mother to visit. An orphan, Jane does not know her origin. Her given name was chosen because Jane is a solid, common English name; her surname because “Fairchild” fits the charitable hopes of those who raised her. In 1924 she serves the Niven family. The Nivens, like their neighbors the Hobdays and the Sheringhams, lost children in World War I. Indeed, there are only two left: Paul Sheringham and Emma Hobday — and those two are to be married in a couple of weeks. The wealthy families or noble origin — apposite to Jane Fairchild in almost every way — must enable their heritage to live on.
Jane and Paul, though, have been lovers for seven years. This did not surprise me, so I guess those upstairs / downstairs shows have educated me in some regards. Jane knows she will never be a full part of Paul’s world, a somewhat perplexing thought since she’s known him so well for much of their lives. She’s not entirely sure what Paul’s marriage will mean for her. Will he shed himself of her entirely?
On this Mothering Sunday, the three wealthy families are getting together to celebrate the impending union — it’s something to do during the inconvenient period with no servants — and Jane figures she’ll just read in the garden until, in the morning, she receives a quick phone call from Paul with a curt summons: The front door. It is, she thinks, his gift to her. Not to enter as a servant, to be waited on, almost, by him, just before their final tryst in the bedroom. She’s never been in his bedroom, all of their prior dalliances occurring in a barn or the hedgerows. And she’s not even going to have to clean up the room afterwards — leave that to the Sheringham’s servants when they return, thinking Paul just has a tryst with his wife-to-be.
That’s the premise, in a nutshell, and we learn all of that in the first few pages. It’s almost incidental to what the book is really interested in: Jane’s mental capacity, her analytical mind, her burgeoning linguistic skills. The story of this particular Mothering Sunday in 1924 is being remembered, you see, by Jane nearly seventy years later, after a life as a famous novelist. It’s not a gimmick, though. This is not McEwan’s Atonement. This Mothering Sunday was real and significant to Jane’s life story; though obviously skilled beforehand, on this day Jane can see herself transformed several times over. She commands the power of a novelist. However, her last meeting with Paul is the story she will never tell when interviewers ask her how she became a novelist. Importantly, though, there are stories she can and does tell — that she was an orphan, for example, without origin and forced to set her own foundation, to see the “scenes that never occur, but wait in the wings of possibility.”
It’s a wonderful book, at once tragic and empowering, and one that should bear repeated readings.