Making the most of an upside-down day
Graham Swift follows up his bravura 2014 story collection England and Other Stories by staying in compact mode and delivering not a 10th novel but a novella. In some respects, Mothering Sunday: A Romance bears comparison with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. It is a short yet powerful and intricately layered work about doomed love; it arrives after a Booker Prize win and a more famous, career-defining novel (respectively Last Orders and Waterland for Swift, Amsterdam and Atonement for McEwan). It may not be Swift’s meatiest book, but with every sentence counting, and not a word out of place, it is his most perfectly formed.
It is March 30, 1924, “what used to be known as Mothering Sunday”. Jane Fairchild is a 22year-old housemaid who, like all servants in Berkshire, and indeed the rest of the country, is given the day off by her employers. Mr and Mrs Niven have been invited to lunch by their friends the Sheringhams, to toast and discuss the forthcoming wedding of their son Paul: “A jamboree in Henley,” Mr Niven explains to Jane. “A meeting of the tribes.”
Neither family is aware that Jane has also re- ceived an invitation — from her illicit lover of nearly eight years, Paul Sheringham. Mr Niven gives her half a crown and use of a bicycle, and, on this unseasonably warm day, she rides off to meet Paul in his family’s grand, empty house.
Swift reveals more as Paul and Jane enjoy their intimate assignation. We hear how they came together cautiously, aware of the wrongness of their relationship, and would snatch what furtive opportunities they could in “stables, greenhouse, potting shed, shrubbery”. In time they learned to relax and laugh while “the whole world was in mourning all around them”. Now they have become “accomplished, unfumbling, serious-faced addicts”, not just secret lovers but secret friends — and just at the point when he is to be married off to a woman of his own class, Emma Hobday.
Thus their erotic encounter is also a bittersweet parting. Paul’s big day is in two weeks and Jane has been “getting ready to lose him”. After washing and dressing, he says goodbye and instructs her to lock up behind her. But Jane delays her departure and, taking advantage of her fleeting freedom, decides to roam the house naked. Feeling like part visitor, part voyeur, we accompany her on her tour of each room and her detours down memory lane.
At two key points Swift halts Jane’s progress and interrupts her thoughts to deliver a surprise and a shock: when she is in the library, Swift informs us she is an avid reader who, in later life, will become a successful writer; and as a grandfather clock chimes two o’clock, Swift tells us: “She had not known he was already dead.”
Like The Light of Day (2003), the main events of the book take place within a single day, albeit an “upside-down day” on which Jane is treated as a lady, or a day “turned inside out”, which heralds not the end of an affair but the beginning of the rest of her life. Swift shows her cycling away and learning of Paul’s death; however, he also veers off, out of the tragic present, to give us sneak glimpses of Jane the novelist.
Fiction is full of such fast-forward forays, but it is a difficult feat to pull off: what should be a neat trick that throws up a fresh perspective can instead be a cheap gimmick that offers only un- necessary diversions. But Swift handles the temporal shifts with aplomb and deftly fleshes Jane out, transforming her from an ingenuous maid with limited prospects to a shrewd and ambitious woman in charge of her own destiny.
As ever, Swift beguiles and impresses with detail and ideas. There are sharp, wry references to class (Paul is a “thoroughbred” like the family stallion; Jane has the red knuckles and worndown nails of her “kind”) and illuminating meditations on Jane’s future profession, including the art of storytelling, the “inconstancy of words” and the inspirational magic of Joseph Conrad.
Pervading the whole book is a wistful evanescence: passing eras, waning traditions, whittled down families. Cars have replaced horses. Paul’s two brothers and Mr Niven’s two sons went off to France to fight and never returned. Mothering Sunday is “a ritual already fading”. Paul and Jane make the most of their “last day”. When Swift provides a flashback it is invariably to a sunnier, calmer time with a fuller household and fewer complications.
At the end, an older Jane explains that fiction-writing is, conversely, truth-telling — “getting to the quick, the heart, the nub, the pith”. We believe her, because that is precisely what her creator has done throughout this engaging and exquisite book.
is an Edinburgh-based critic.