When you have family or friends who live in another time zone, perhaps, like me, you may imagine what they are doing when you are thinking of them; it’s six o’clock there – maybe they are having dinner. Or maybe you hear an ambulance siren and wonder if the person you just left has had a sudden mishap. But, of course, you cannot know – until later, when the news catches up with you. In Booker Prize winning novelist Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, the one day we witness with Jane Fairfield has the power of retrospect – what if you had known – and now that you have the information, what will you do with it?
Jane Fairfield, who could have been Daisy, the diligent cook’s assistant in Downton Abbey, has grown from the foundling on the orphanage doorstep to the housemaid who loves to read classic adventure stories in her master’s library. She has been having a secret affair with the handsome heir of the neighboring estate, and is recalling the fateful day in 1924 when they said good-bye – just weeks before his planned wedding with another of his class.
With a style reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Swift focuses on one day, remembered by the now old woman in her nineties, Jane, who narrates her memory of romance and steamy sex on a life-changing day when she was a young woman. Mothering Sunday is the name given to the maid’s day off when those women of service – cooks and maids – would take the train from the estate to visit their mothers. Jane has no mother and she had planned to spend the day reading while the family attended a pre-wedding luncheon with future in-laws. But she gets a better offer – from the prospective bridegroom who invites her to one last interlude – for the first time in his room at his estate.
With subtle nuance, Swift simultaneously captures both the heady lust and the disparity in their lives. Jane recalls walking around the house after Paul has driven off to meet his future wife, wondering about their conversation when he arrives late. Although Swift leaves clues, the shocking incident that changes her perspective is still unexpected.
Slowly, the story morphs into an interview with Jane, the author, ninety years old, answering questions while silently reliving the day in March – with its impact on her life – the turning point when she decided to change from her life in service to work in a bookstore and eventually become a successful writer. Jane’s reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may inspire you to reread that classic, as I did.
A powerfully small book with every word tightly chosen – Mothering Sunday is a book not to miss.