‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift (2016) – 177 pages
“Once upon a time…” Thus ‘Mothering Sunday’ begins that old reliable way, and by its end it fulfills my ideal of the perfect novella.
It is a simple story with broad insights into maids, class, love, sex, war, and writing. It takes place on Sunday March 30, 1924. Two rooms in the Sheringham manor have been left unchanged since two of their sons left for World War I never to return. Remaining son to the manor-born Paul Sheringham is soon to be married to his arranged fiancé. However the day is Mothering Sunday which is the one English day of the year on which domestic servants are given a holiday, and this is Paul’s last chance to dally in bed with the next-door neighbors’ household maid Jane Fairfield, his secret lover for the past six years. All is told from the maid’s point of view.
‘Mothering Sunday’ captures the sunny ambiance of an unseasonably warm spring day in the Twenties and the sparks of an illicit but romantic love affair.
“It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feeling of being alive.”
During the course of the story, we learn Jane Fairfield’s entire biography via flashbacks and flash-forwards from her days in an orphanage up to the time when she is 98 years old and a renowned writer. As the years go by, the world changes, and new opportunities open up even for a girl who was born as a foundling. Thank heaven that things are not set in concrete.
“Many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all.”
I completed ‘Mothering Sunday’ in one day, and I am not a fast reader. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with that other recent English romantic novella, ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan. I believe ‘Mothering Sunday’ will hold up very well in the comparison. From his early novels such as ‘Shuttlecock’ and ‘Waterland’, Graham Swift has been writing excellent unique novels that defy expectations. Perhaps Swift has been underrated in recent years, but ‘Mothering Sunday’ should change all that.
‘Mothering Sunday’ is a good-natured exquisitely written small slice of life from the 1920s. I can hardly wait for the movie.