Life in servitude

Life in servitude

Mothering Sunday
Graham Swift
Scribner UK
2016, pp 132
399

It has to be said: this book has two immediate hooks. One is the gorgeous Modigliani nude sprawled on the cover, making for a sumptuous book jacket, one that instantly impels you to pick the book up. The other is the opening line, where it says “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed…”

Now I ask you, which reader will not want to know more about the boys, and why and how they were killed?

However, the reader gets sidetracked all too soon. This is Jane’s story and everyone else plays only side roles. Swift’s tale deals with a celebrated and successful author now in her 90s, subject of many an interview and article.

Jane Fairchild looks back, not for the journalist du jour but for us, the readers. She looks back to when she was a luscious 22-year-old, working as a maid at a stately pile called Beechwood. Further narrowing the beam of focus, she looks back to one afternoon when she cycles off to the neighbouring mansion, Upleigh, to indulge in an illicit tryst with the dashing scion of the house,Paul Sheringham.

It’s June of 1924, picnic weather, and what takes place, takes place on March 30, Mothering Sunday. If the reader should decide that willy-nilly, the young Jane ends up mothering at least two people, her wellborn lover Paul and then her employer Mr Niven, the latter much shaken after a sudden tragedy shatters the peace of the quiet neighbourhood. Well that is not way off-track. And yes, Mothering Sunday was indeed the precursor to today’s Mother’s Day.

The style is pretty much what fans have come to expect from Swift. The narrative is told from the maid’s perspective, though not in the first person. Even as the reader is made privy to all that happens in the upstairs bedroom at Upleigh, the story keeps pulling back to the present and revealing a much older, definitely wiser Jane. She had learned discretion along the way, which is why she is not about to reveal details of her days of as a maid. However, given the chance, would the acerbic writer do all she did back then? Ah, yes she would. Therein lies a moral for those who would decode it.

All along there is a faint but distinctive undertone of melancholia. There is regret for the fact that she is a foundling, found at the doorstep of an orphanage, hence the common surname of Fairchild. Sorrow for not having a mother to guide her better. Jane was given a day off for Mothering Sunday to visit her mother. But of course, Jane has no mother, and the reader knows how she spent much of that day, at Upleigh. And oh yes, this could well be the last rendezvous because Mr Sheringham was engaged to be married to a young lady of his class and station, therein adding a touch of poignancy to the proceedings.

Despite the emotional content of this look back, Jane keeps her tone entirely without sentiment, very old English, in fact. This is a memory patch offered without any justification. Did Jane really and truly love Paul? Was he at all fond of her, just a little bit, or did he see her as ripe fruit for the plucking? After all, we have it from Jane that he — once — said she was his friend as well as his lover.

These matters we have to glean for ourselves, because though the elderly Jane is clearly seeking some kind of closure in harking back to that afternoon, she does not in any way embellish the tale. But yes, it is a romance, Jane’s secret romance, the one that she clearly has kept close to her heart, and frequently airs for inspection. The reader is lucky that, this time, she chose to take a protracted look back in their company.

One fascinating detail: Jane develops a love of books early in life. We don’t know if she managed to lay her hands on books at the orphanage but at Beechwood, she borrows books frequently, under Mr Niven’s pleased supervision, preferring “boy’s” books like Treasure Island, Coral island, and The Black Arrow. Even though we come to know that Jane often artfully imitates the toff pronunciation, nothing gives the reader the faintest inkling that she would in future, build on that fascination for the written word and herself become a writer.

The boys who were killed? Why, they were the Niven sons, all lost to World War I. Therein lies another tale, perhaps.

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