I think (though I haven’t checked) that Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift might be the only novel written in 2016 that I read last year – I read a handful of non-fiction titles published last year, but no other novels are coming to mind. It was given to me by my dear friend Lorna, because she thought it sounded like my cup of tea. And she was right – I mean, it’s set in the 1920s, for starters.
More specifically, it is set on 30 March 1924 – guess which festival falls on that day? Yes, it’s Mothering Sunday – and clever, thoughtful Jane Fairchild is given the day off to visit her mother, like all servants up and down the land are doing. Only Jane is an orphan. She tells her master that she will spend the day reading, but instead cycles off for an afternoon of passion (if you will) with Paul Sheringham. He is a well-to-do man, friends with the Nivens, the family for whom Jane is a housemaid; he is also engaged, but is spending the time before he drives off to see his fiance having sex with our Jane.
This is sounding a bit tawdry, but Mothering Sunday is nothing of the sort. Yes, my 1920s mindset had to get to grips with the 2016 novel’s willingness to throw in explicit words of an anatomical nature – but this is not a morality tale, or even a tale of rebelling against morals. It’s more a beautifully written depiction of one significant afternoon in a girl’s life – told in the third person, but throwing in moments where the 90+ year old Jane is clearly looking backwards.
And secret love. And secret friend. He had said that once to her, ‘You are my friend, Jay.’ He had said it so announcingly. It had made her head go light. She had never been called that, named that thing so decisively by anyone, as if he were saying he had no other friend, he had only just discovered, in fact, what a friend might be. And she was to tell no one about this newly attested revelation.
It had made her head swim. She was seventeen. She had ceased to be a prostitute. Friend. It was better perhaps than lover. Not that ‘lover’ would have been then in her feasible vocabulary, or even in her thinking. But she would have lovers. In Oxford. She would have many of them, she would make a point of it. Though how many of them were friends?
Swift layers his story, giving hints of what is to come – both on that afternoon, and in the rest of Jane’s life – building up a narrative piece by subtle piece. For that reason, I shan’t give any spoilers. I was really impressed by the way he did this with a sort of rhythmical structure. It reminded me of a needle sewing through a fabric, but occasionally looping back a bit – or a piece of music, where motifs are repeated or alluded to now and then. The same phrases appear again and again, or variants on them; we are told something we already know so that the narrative can build on it a little, putting together a portrait incrementally. It’s very cleverly done – the sort of not-straightforward writing which isn’t showy or off-putting, but like waves on the shore coming in and out.
So, there you go; the prose is like sewing, music, and waves! Put together those images and you might get an idea of what the reading experience was like. Better yet, give it a try. It’s a slim novel, only 132pp in my edition, and occasionally it feels like a luxuriously extended short story – whatever it is, I really enjoyed reading it.