Book review: Mothering Sunday

Graham SwiftThe title of this book by Graham Swift refers to the day on which the story takes place, rather to any essay about motherhood. It is March 30, 1924, Mothering Sunday, when servants are given the day off to visit their mothers. A young woman, an orphan and servant, meets a young man from a neighbouring house, who is betrothed to another woman. It is to be their last assignation before his marriage. This is a slim book, a novella, beautifully-written. I wasn’t sure at the beginning, I found the first page and the reference to Fandango the racehorse a little odd. But once I got past that, I read it in one sitting on an airplane.

It is a story about telling stories. This story is told by a novelist in her nineties who is used to be interviewed and asked repetitively about her life as a writer: when did she become a writer? The answer lies on Mothering Sunday in 1924. This is a treatise about the class system of the time, about sex and sensuality, about rebellion and about bucking the system. Jane – the housemaid and novelist – is a keen reader and with the permission of her master, she borrows books from his library. She prefers boys’ stories, adventure tales, and then she stumbles on Joseph Conrad and is smitten. Her reading sets her apart from her master, and her lover Paul. The Mothering Sunday on which the events happen takes place at a time of great transition between the wars, as the role of women was widening. Books give Jane a route out of her servile world, away from sex with the master’s son without hope of subsequent marriage, to a job as an assistant in a bookshop.

We only see the story from Jane’s point of view, Young Jane and Old Jane. Is she telling the truth, embroidering the story for fictional effect, layering on the emotions of the tragedy that occurs that sunny March afternoon?

A masterpiece, again by Swift. It stayed with me and will be re-read.

An aside, this hardback edition has the most wonderful cover design: a detail from Reclining Nude [red nude] 1917-18 by Modigliani. It will look well on my bookshelves for years to come.

If you like ‘Mothering Sunday’, try these other novellas:-
‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes
‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ by Elizabeth Strout
‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell

‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift [UK: Scribner] Buy here

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