In many European Christian traditions, Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday in Lent and for domestic servants was a rare day off from cooking and cleaning for other people’s families so they could visit their own.
Booker-winner Graham Swift’s slim 10th novel, Mothering Sunday: A Romance begins in 1924 when England is still missing the sons and brothers and male servants who didn’t come home from the Great War. Housemaid Jane Fairchild is 22 and a foundling, so she has no mother to visit and instead has other plans for this beautiful spring day. Over the course of Mothering Sunday, some things will go very right and others badly wrong, and Jane will be profoundly changed.
Moments of change are ubiquitous in fiction, but Jane’s is something rare and beautiful. Mothering Sunday: A Romance has a perfectly judged story, but the facts of its plot are less important than the mood Swift creates. It’s a lyrical embodiment of a lazy warm Sunday. It’s a breath of breeze on sun-warmed skin; it’s a dozy, meditative mind wandering off into possibilities. There are layers and layers of meaning here, and as Swift flows forward in time to give us, first glimpses, then gradually more definitive views of Jane’s future, the ripples of this single day become apparent.
Jane’s plans for Mothering Sunday involve time spent in bed with her lover, Paul Sheringham. Paul is an upper-class law student, the son of friends of her master and mistress, and engaged to be married to Emma, a suitable society girl.
“Given their common predicament – which only occurred once a year and only for a portion of one day”, Paul’s parents and Emma’s parents and Jane’s employers “were all to meet for lunch at Henley and so deal with the temporary bother of having no servants”. For Jane and Paul, sex is usually hurried and furtive but, on this day, the lovers can use Paul’s bed, upstairs. Paul
must meet his fiancée later, so he can’t lie around. Jane, though, can take her time in the empty house.
And so she did. She glided from room to room. She looked, took in, but also secretly bestowed. She seemed to float on the knowledge that, outrageous as her visiting was – she hadn’t a stitch on! – no one would know, guess she had even been there. As if her nakedness conferred on her not just invisibility but an exemption from fact.
Despite certain similarities, this isn’t Downton Abbey where downstairs is subject to rules and intrigues just as complex and rigid as those of Lady Mary and her ilk. Here, there’s only one right way to do things – the posh way – and every aspect of the world is divided into servants and masters. Perhaps it’s not possible in the real world for a woman in her early 20s to entirely create a sense of self in one day, but Swift makes it seem entirely believable in fiction. Before Mothering Sunday, Jane was effectively a blank. As she explains it:
My name, Fairchild, was one of the names that were given to foundling children. There were lots of Fairchilds, Goodchilds, Goodbodys and so on who came out of orphanages – so that they would have, I suppose, a well-intentioned start in life … Jane is just any old girl’s name, isn’t it? Young girl’s, I mean. Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, Jane Russell…
Jane’s life in domestic service and her placement in that house in particular has been outside her control. Without any real cruelty, and indeed with a great deal of patronising good intentions, she’s objectified. On the morning of Mothering Sunday, Paul summons her and she lies to her master and goes to him. It’s not until she has an unexpected opportunity to imagine and transgress, and that the power of these things are set by shock, that she grasps her ability to invent. Soon, she envisages a different kind of life away from service and the only world she’s ever known.
Swift’s considerable technical skill isn’t showy and he makes an extremely complex structure appear organic. The sex itself, though, is barely described, and clumsily. “With one hand, the other holding her cigarette, she just brushed, not looking, his moist cock, feeling it stir almost instantly, like some sleeping nestling. As if she might have done such a thing all her life, an idle duchess, stroking a puppy.” It’s at odds with the sensuality that Jane feels when she’s alone but I’m so far in Swift’s trance now that I’m happy to concede that it’s deliberate: a banal grounding, to make the rest of it seem that much more ethereal.
Mothering Sunday: A Romance certainly is a romance, but a romance with what? Although Jane is fond of him, it’s surely not with Paul of the moist nestling, the puppy cock. Jane is woken by the discovery of adventure among the daily lassitude of life – perhaps it’s this. Or perhaps it’s a romance with herself. Or books? Jane has been granted special library privileges by her master, Mr Niven, who is baffled that she wants to read books “for boys”.
Boys’ stuff, adventure stuff. She didn’t mind not reading girls’ stuff, whatever that might be. Adventure. The word itself often loomed and beckoned from the pages: ‘adventure’.
Can there be too many books about people in love with books? Not in my opinion.
At the end of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, ageing novelist Briony Tallis muses on how little she’s changed since her juvenilia. “It occurs to me that I have not travelled so very far after all, since I wrote my little play,” she says. McEwan might see the seed of the woman in the girl, but I doubt Swift would think the same.
“Was there ever such a day as this? Could there ever be such a day again” as this particular Sunday? Perhaps not, but for Jane, one day is enough. Mothering Sunday: A Romance is entrancing. It’s more like a spell than a novel. LS
Scribner, 136pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 27, 2016 as "Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday". Subscribe here.