As it is Mother’s Day here in the UK my original plan was to try and squeeze in a reading of a new translation of The Iliad so I could surprise my mother by reading one of the great classics and making her proud. However, with work events on most evenings and my probation last week (which I passed, phew) it was not the time to read a tome. Instead I plumped for the latest offering from Graham Swift, who I had yet to try though my mother is a huge fan of, which had the apt title of Mothering Sunday. Well it turns out this isn’t about a mother on a Sunday at all, though might be nice to treat your mother to that she can read on a Sunday if she isn’t averse to some mild saucy shenanigans and possibly having a small emotional weep or two…
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.
March 30th 1924. Once upon a time.
Mothering Sunday throws us straight into the life of Jane Fairchild on a day that will have a lasting effect on her life forever. As we soon learn Jane, a young woman of 22, is a maid who is having a rather illicit affair with one of the heir’s to the Sheringham family mansion next door to her employers the Nivens. Not just an heir but a soon to be married one, very soon, as the impending nuptials are mere weeks away. Jane knows herself that this cannot last and something in the air tells her (whilst something in the prose tells us) that this relationship is about to come to an end.
Graham Swift cleverly gives us this tale from Jane’s narrative both at the time and then in her nineties able to look on it with hindsight whilst also still reliving the emotions of the time. This was one of the many wonderful things that I thought Swift did in this novella-cum-novel (I never know the rule that officially makes a work one or the other!) because it gives a certain fascinating duality and sense of perceptions to one story. On the one hand we have the older, seemingly wiser, Jane and then on the other we have a young maid, clearly smitten yet also thinking about love, sexuality, class, sense of self and much more.
She supposed that, most of the time, Mr Niven would ‘undo’ Mrs Niven, if she couldn’t undo herself. What a word – ‘undo!’ She supposed that Mrs Niven might now and then say, ‘Undo me, Godfrey,’ in a different way to how she might say it to her maid. Or that Mr Niven might sometimes say in a different way still, ‘Can I undo you, Clarrie?’
She supposed that Mr and Mrs Niven might still, now and then… even though some eight years ago they lost two ‘brave boys’. But she did not suppose. She occasionally saw the evidence. She changed the sheets.
I am quite a nosey person so as well as being enthralled (and also quite worried and nervous, with a sense of what might come) by the story of Jane and her lover Paul, I was also fascinated by the whole upstairs downstairs element of the book. After one encounter, Jane wanders an empty manor house and tries to see it through the eyes of the wealthy, rather than from the eyes of the worker which is an interesting concept.
Throughout Swift’s writing is wonderful, occasionally a single sentence could make me well up and a few made my jaw drop, as he conjures up the people, places and tiniest details through Jane’s eyes. Everything comes fully formed, vivid and intricate but without him having to spell everything out. His prose is sparse, yet it brims. One of my favourite lines being an observation of orchids, a rare decadent decoration. They had a stillness, an insistence, each little bloom was like a frozen butterfly. Speaking of prose and style, there is also an interesting repetitive and circular nature to the book which could possibly annoy/alienate some but I found gave the novel a real pace, an element of poetry to it as well as that nostalgic sense. There are also some wonderful nods to literature and the joys of storytelling.
Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do…
I found Mothering Sunday to be something of a modernistic fairytale, well as modern as you can get with a 1920’s setting. In fact in some ways it could be seen as a feminist version of Cinderella, we have a maid who goes from rags to riches, only it is less the handsome prince that saves her life and more changes it in ways you might not expect. It has a happy ending of sorts, but not the one that you might be expecting. I loved this element as I love a good fairy tale and the nods, sometimes subtle sometimes not so, to other tales outside Cinderella I really enjoyed. They give the tale a sense of nostalgic romanticism and also bring in some of those wonderful gothic elements that have come through storytelling for decades, and Swift is a wonderful storyteller. Can a mirror keep a print? Can you look into a mirror and see someone else? Can you step through a mirror and be someone else?
It is hard to say more about this wonderful book for fear of spoiling it. I will say be prepared to be deeply moved by it for all sorts of reasons. I was quite spell bound by Mothering Sunday and Swift’s writing, so much so that after having read it in bursts all week I sat down and read it again in one gulp this morning and I am sure I will be reaching for it again in the future. A first it seems a simple tale of one day in one woman’s life, yet through its nuances and layers it is a story of storytelling and those moments, big and small, which define our lives and the people who we become. I am now very keen to read much more of Swift’s work, so do let me know where to head. And if you haven’t, do try and get your hands on a copy of this because it’s fantastic.