Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift (2016, 132 pages)
Despite being so short, this is a heartbreakingly beautiful tale. Its focus is one day – Mothering Sunday in 1924 – when the orphaned Jane Fairchild has the day off like all housemaids, but no home to go to.
“All over the country, maids and cooks and nannies had been ‘freed’ for the day, but was any of them – was even Paul Sheringham – as untethered as she?”
Paul Sheringham is her aristocratic lover at a neighbouring house, and they take advantage of the staff absence to meet, possibly for the last time as he is soon to be married.
“In any case she was getting ready to lose him. Was he getting ready to lose her? She had no right to expect him to see it that way. Did she have any right to think she was losing him? She had never exactly had him. But oh yes she had.”
The romance between the two is brilliantly evoked, as there is a real sense, although nothing is said, of how deeply they feel for one another while under no illusion that their relationship will endure.
“As if he wished her to know, she would think later, that on this special upside-down day he had placed himself, lordliest of the lordly as he could be, in the deferring role. He had … offered her his house, opened its door for her obediently on her arrival, then undressed her as if he were slave”
There is much foreshadowing of the events of the day and we know that something hugely significant occurred, something which changes Jane’s life forever.
“As if the day had turned inside out, as if what she was leaving behind was not enclosed, lost, entombed in a house. It had merged somehow – pouring itself outwards – with the air she was breathing. She would never be able to explain it, and she would not feel it any the less even when she discovered, as she would do, how this day had turned really inside out.”
Mothering Sunday is more plot-heavy than a lot of novellas, and it is incredible how much Swift packs into such a short space without the story ever feeling constrained or curtailed in any way. At the same time, he is brave enough to leave a huge part of the story unanswered, as things sometimes are unanswered in life.
“We are all fuel. We are born, and we burn, some of us more quickly than others. There are different kinds of combustion. But not to burn, never to catch fire at all, that would be the sad life, wouldn’t it?”
Captivating and brilliant.
However, you may not find it so – I urge you to read Lucy’s very funny review of Mothering Sunday here.