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?