This is Graham Swift’s tenth novel and I wonder if it’s a common occurrence that writers, particularly male writers, in their later years lean more towards a pared down prose style to only focus on what’s necessary. It’s been true most recently for Julian Barnes whose recent novel “The Noise of Time” is a very short book and it’s been the case for authors like Philip Roth, Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo. It may not mean anything, but I wonder if this trend has something to do with mature writers feeling less a need for the grand showmanship of an epic novel and finding more poignancy in tightly compressed stories. Whatever the reason, it’s worked for Barnes and it’s certainly worked for this tremendously gorgeous novel “Mothering Sunday.” In only 132 pages, Swift encapsulates a crucial day in the life of Jane Fairchild, an orphan maid at a grand country house who becomes a great writer.
The day in question is Mothering Sunday 1924. At a very elderly age Jane looks back on what happened over the course of this day when she was still young. In beautifully stark language Swift evokes the lingering pleasure and tension of an affair. Paul is a member of the gentry who has agreed to marry Miss Hobday, mostly for her family’s money. He’s due to meet both his family and his fiancée’s at a gathering scheduled two weeks before their marriage. Instead he enjoys an assignation in his bedroom with Jane before eventually leaving to join the party. Does he want to stay with Jane instead? Is he happy to marry Miss Hobday? Or is he merely fulfilling an obligation? These questions are suspended in the air as the afternoon drifts by and they enjoy each others’ bodies. What’s mesmerizing is the way that Swift circles back to the same images and moments between them over and over. Since this is a novel being told in retrospect this accurately mimics the way memory works where past events are frequently replayed in our minds from different angles with slight changes. It’s stated that “This was the great truth of life, that fact and fiction were always merging, interchanging.”
As the title suggests, one of the most fascinating concepts that Swift explores within this story is children and parenthood. Set after the First World War the sons of some of the established families within the area have been lost in battle. Photos of Paul’s brother poignantly remain in his room as he spends time with Jane. They are able to enjoy this time in his large residence alone because the staff have gone home to visit their mothers. Jane, being an orphan, has nowhere to go. However, it’s interesting that she views her parentless status as an advantage. It gives her the opportunity to entirely forge the path in life she wants rather than be hemmed in by the obligations and expectations of family. This is a novel partly about heritage, who owns the future and hence who controls the narrative of history.
The later part of this novel also turns much more into a discourse on the nature of language and writing. I know many people will find it predictable that this is another book about a writer writing about a writer. However, Swift raises very compelling ideas and makes meaningful observations which I felt so emotionally involved with because I was arrested by Jane’s distinct perspective and her situation. Geeky pleasures of the committed reader abound as well since Jane writes about the books that have influenced her, particularly Joseph Conrad, and her early discovery of reading in the library of her employer Mr Niven. She humorously observes that “It was what, she sometimes thought, libraries were for: for men to disappear into and be important in, even though they had disappeared.” Unlike the privileged class surrounding her in her early years, she actually reads and engages with the literature she finds in these private libraries and it turns her into a writer.
Since this is a book about a writer it seems appropriate that I met with the writers Antonia Honeywell (The Ship) and Claire Fuller (Our Endless Numbered Days) to discuss this new novel. We formed a sort of mini book club since we all discovered on Twitter that we’d been sent advance copies. It was an absolute pleasure getting their points of view about how the story played out and some of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a book open to many different interpretations because I think Swift creates a number of intriguing ambiguities. I was somewhat trepidatious about starting “Mothering Sunday” as the only other book by Graham Swift I’ve read is “The Light of Day” which I didn’t really like. However, now I’m enthusiastic about going back to read his acclaimed novel “Waterland” and “Tomorrow” – which Antonia assures me is brilliant. “Mothering Sunday” begins somewhat unsteadily in a privileged world that feels a little too ‘Downton Abbey’ but it quickly becomes something much more profound and beautiful. I ended up completely loving it and wanting to immediately read it again.