Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

I read this as part of my Walter Scott Prize Project (it was shortlisted in 2017) and yet again I am grateful to the Prize for pointing me in the direction of a book I would probably never have thought of picking up otherwise.

Mothering Sunday, in its original form, was a day when servants were given the day off work so that they could go home and visit their ‘mother church’ with their families. Jane Fairchild, the twenty-two-year-old heroine of Graham Swift’s novel, is an orphan, so when she is given a day’s holiday from her duties as a maid, she has no home to go to and no family to visit. Instead, she borrows a bicycle and rides across the English countryside to the big house nearby where her lover, Paul Sheringham, is waiting for her.

The book takes us through the course of that one single day in March 1924 – a day so warm and sunny it feels more like June, a day which begins with so much hope and happiness. But Jane shouldn’t really be here with Paul; he is engaged – to a much more ‘suitable’ girl than Jane – and the marriage is due to take place in just two weeks’ time. Their lovely, idyllic afternoon is cut short when Paul reluctantly gets dressed and goes to meet his future wife. Jane is left alone and what happens next is something that will stay with her for the rest of her life.

Mothering Sunday is a short novel, really more of a novella, but Graham Swift manages to pack a lot into those few pages. He has a lot to say – but always subtly and always ‘showing rather than telling’ – about relationships, about class differences and about a country still recovering from the effects of war. I particularly liked the way he handles the passing of time, describing the events of that March day in 1924 then moving smoothly and briefly forward to a later stage in Jane’s life to show how those events shape her future self.

My favourite aspect of the book, though, is Jane’s love of literature. Perhaps unusually for a servant in the 1920s, her reading has been encouraged by her employer, Mr Niven, who allows her to choose from his own shelves. The books she is most drawn to are the ones by Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, H Rider Haggard, and her newest discovery, Joseph Conrad.

And later, much later in her life, she would say in interviews, in answer to a perennial (and tedious) question, ‘Oh boys’ books, adventure books, they were the thing. Who would want to read sloppy girls’ stuff?’

Her eyes might glint, her wrinkled face purse up a bit more. But then she might say, if she wanted to be less skittish, that reading those books then — ‘the war, you understand, the first one that is, was barely over’ — was like reading across a divide. So close, yet a great divide. Pirates and knights-in-armour, buried treasure and sailing ships. But they were the books she had read.

Although, as I’ve said, this is a short book, by the end of it I felt that I knew Jane Fairchild well. The limited number of characters – Jane, Paul and Mr Niven are the only ones with significant roles – gives the book a feeling of intimacy and the sense that we are there with Jane on that long-ago Mothering Sunday.

Graham Swift is not an author I had ever considered reading or thought that I would like, but based on this book, I could be interested in reading some of his others. Does anyone have any recommendations?

29 thoughts on “Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

  1. eduardodefrutos says:

    I’m glad you liked Mothering Sunday. Last year it was also published in Spain; I read it and really enjoyed it. I think you put it perfectly: the short amount of characters gives the book a sense of intimacy.

    • Helen says:

      I’m pleased you enjoyed it too. I think short books like this often work better when they only have a few characters – it means we can get to know them well. I’m looking forward to reading more of Graham Swift’s books now.

  2. FictionFan says:

    This sounds wonderful – I must read it! I had no idea that was the origin of Mothering Sunday. I did however know that many employers provided books for their servants at that period – it’s one of the things discussed in a book I read recently called The Country House Library. Apparently some even set up a room specifically as a library for their staff. But I’ve never come across it in fiction before.

  3. beckylindroos says:

    Glad you enjoyed Mothering Sunday, Helen. I also enjoyed it quite a lot. Yes, I’ve read a number of Swift’s novels, “Wish You Were Here,” “Last Orders,” “Light of Day,” and “Waterland.” He is always very good – slightly quirky and very well wirtten. “Mothering Sunday” is not unusual that way. “Waterland” is my favorite but I really enjoyed “Wish You Were Here,” too.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad to hear you’ve enjoyed so many of his books. Thanks for the recommendations – I will think about reading Waterland and Wish You Were Here.

  4. Sandra says:

    I loved this book, Helen, and were I more organised I would have written about it myself. (I may still do so of course!) I agree with everything you’ve said: so much packed into such a short book and yet often the passage of time moved so slowly. It covers so many themes, and may have helped me with my personal confusion about Heart of Darkness! I’m so pleased that you liked it too.

    • Helen says:

      I would be interested to read your thoughts on it if you do still decide to write about it. For such a short book, it was very impressive and had a lot more depth than I’d expected at first.

      • Sandra says:

        I would love to write about it and I hope I get to it eventually. Heaven knows why it takes me so long to get anything posted – I do wonder what I do with my time!

  5. Ruthiella says:

    I’ve never read any Graham Swift before but I have heard good things about Last Orders. I have a copy of Mothering Sunday on my shelf which I bought two years ago now! I keep thinking I need a quiet weekend to read it in one go. I did start it and it seemed to me that it was a text that needed patience and mental space from me.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think saving it for a quiet weekend is a good idea. It’s a short book but one that needs some concentration. I will have to look out for Last Orders – I haven’t heard of that one.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    Everything about this book sounds great to me. I am adding it to my lists and will check out the author.

  7. Carmen says:

    The premise sounds so good…Now you have me wondering what happened to Jane on that Sunday. 🙂 I have no idea what that event may have been, but the writing, from what I gather from your review, sounds dreamy.

    • Helen says:

      All I can say about what happens to Jane is that it’s a life-changing moment. This is a beautifully written book and more compelling than I thought it was going to be at first. I would definitely recommend it.

  8. Karen K. says:

    Thank you for the reminder — I’ve been wanting to read this and I just found out I need to choose a short book for next month’s book group which suddenly fell in my lap! This sounds like a great short read and excellent for discussion.

    • Helen says:

      I think this would be a good book to read for a book group. It’s short, but covers a lot of topics and themes which would be interesting to discuss.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it is interesting. I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t seen it on the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize, but I’m glad I did as I really enjoyed it.

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