Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Away from murder, and back to Mothering Sunday. Back, that  is, to Graham Swift’s version of an interwar Mothering Sunday in a short but I felt, well written book which has implications for so much more than one day.

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A slightly trimmed image of the cover!

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

This short book, novella, romance, call it what you will, on one level is long enough for one idea. Jane Fairchild is a servant who has been having an affair with Paul Sheringham. This Mothering Sunday is to be their last meeting, certainly for this illicit purpose, as Paul is to get married within weeks. So far, so simple. Certainly a nice simple idea for 149 pages. Regrets, yes, the ending of a relationship, certainly. This short book on the surface is a short farewell to a sort of love.

The really impressive thing about this book soon becomes obvious. The title indicates that Jane is benefitting from a tradition of servants having Mothering Sunday, this day in March, free to return to their families, their mothers. Jane is an orphan, a foundling, without any family or even clue to a real name. This fact continues into a discussion of what she should do, her friendly even fatherly employer, the bicycle he provides, the books she can borrow, and all the many layers of contributory factors to a situation just as complex as many a full length novel. That is what is so fascinating about this book; it is just like real life in that no significant event happens in a vacuum, its causes, implications and impact come from so many sources, affect so many people, change so many lives.

Paul is in some senses the special son, as he has survived. This story is set in 1924, when the generation lost in the war is still a vivid memory, bedrooms still hold the everyday possessions of the dead, and servants are a disappearing breed. Jane is surprised at her summons to a house left empty as parents, servants and everyone has gone. Her opposite number as a maid, Ethel, is imagined as she will clear the room, pick up clothes, possibly wonder what Paul actually did in this fine spring morning. Even while the small events of the morning and early afternoon are happening, Jane imagines what will happen, the effects on the rest of her life. Her movement round the house is weighted with thoughts of what has happened to her so far, and thoughts to a future without Paul.

This book suggests what it is to be a writer, the watching of light, people, objects. The balancing of influences of family, or lack of one, creating a name, a background. Imagining what people will do, how they will react, what they will do in unforeseen circumstances. From early in the book we are told that Jane will survive, live a long life, become a significant writer. In one day, in this Mothering Sunday, her life’s pattern is discussed.

This book is a little obvious in its descriptions, and conceals nothing in any sense. I read it with fascination as it almost hypnotises with its detailed observations and Jane’s processing of what is happening. It is short, but packs in so much in a deceptively small “Tale”. It is unique in what it suggests and achieves within this format, and deserves to be read.