Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Two grand old houses, inhabited by the Nivens and the Sheringhams, who between them lost four sons in the great war.


It was March 30th 1924. It was Mothering Sunday. Milly had her mother to go to. But the Nivens’ maid had her simple liberty, and half a crown to go with it. Then the telephone had rung, rapidly altering her previous plan. No, she wouldn’t be having a picnic.

Jane Fairchild is 22, and works as a maid for the Niven family at their home, Beechwood, in Berkshire. How will Jane, orphan and housemaid, occupy her time when she has no mother to visit? How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?

It is a day she will never speak or write about, it is her secret day, with her secret lover and friend.

This is an orphan story written by a writer of experience, a male author who knows what to do with words and how to make a story. He calls his character Jane Fairchild, presumably after those other great orphan female characters, Jane Eyre or Jane Fairfax.

Orphan, Jane Fairfax, in Jane Austen’s Emma, is entirely dependent on the kindness of others. She survives as the live-in companion to a close and affluent friend, but when that friend marries she must look for another way of sustaining herself.

Orphan, Jane Eyre, is treated cruelly by the household of her Aunt at Gateshead and subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school. Her only chance of survival is to become a governess, and thus dependent on, the already married Mr. Rochester, who she falls in love with. Although Jane flees ultimately she returns and chooses love and the traditional marriage route.

Jane Fairchild on the other hand, discovers a freedom through her sexual liberation, and with a Dutch cap ‘up her fanny’ rides her bike to an assignation with her lover.

The Bronte sisters, Trollope, George Eliot, Thackeray and Gaskell all positioned orphans as leading characters in their novels.

Orphans give the writer a freedom that characters with parents do not have and Swift is only too well aware of this, giving his Jane these words:

‘I was an orphan,’ she would divulge for the umpteenth time. ‘I never knew my father or mother. Or even my real name. If I ever had one. This has always seemed to me the perfect basis for becoming a writer – particularly a writer of fiction. To have no credentials at all. TO be given a clean sheet, or rather, to be a clean sheet yourself. A nobody. How can you be a somebody without first being a nobody?’

Both estates have lost sons in the First World War, both families are still grieving but there is to be a wedding between Paul Sheringham and Emma Hobday, another estate, an ‘arranged’ marriage. Mothering Sunday opens with the last sensual and intimate moments between Jane, maid from Beechwood, and only surviving son, Paul Sheringham, heir of nearby Upleigh. Their relationship is played out against a backdrop of change, both estates make do ‘with just a cook and a maid’. Jane and Paul have been lovers and friends for almost seven years.

He must have noticed the trickle. But it was part of his fine disdain not to notice it. It was like the clothes he might leave pooled on the floor, to find their way back to him, laundered and pressed, hanging in the dressing room. These were things to be cleared up discreetly by people who cleared up such things. And she, normally, was such a one. She was part of the magic army that permitted such disregard.

It is an unusually warm day in March. Time is captured in the opening scenes, time that is remembered a lifetime, time that is replayed. Images are conjured up: nakedness, the sunlight, the lattice shadows on the skin.

When Paul Sheringham leaves Upleigh, Jane is told to leave everything. She is not to be his ‘bloody maid’. He leaves her naked, to do as she wishes.

And what he’d just bestowed on her: his whole house. He was leaving it to her. It was hers, for her amusement. She might ransack it if she wished. All hers. And what was a maid to do with her time, released for the day on Mothering Sunday, when she had no home to got to?

Walk naked in the library, is what Jane does. After Paul leaves, she explores the entire house, catching sight of herself in the mirror.

Can you look into a mirror and see someone else? Can you step through a mirror and be someone else?

Like a re-birth, like an understanding of herself. Because Jane is an orphan who reads and because she is in a house of sons, it is the adventure books for boys that will become her favourites. ‘Who would want to read sloppy girls’ stuff?’ The narrative sees her collecting phrases, expressions, words for when she will find her true vocation, that of a writer.


Edouard John Mentha – Maid reading in a Library

Beginning with an intimate assignation and opening to embrace decades, Mothering Sunday has at its heart both the story of a life and the life that stories can magically contain. It is a beautifully written orphan narrative and one that I enjoyed reading and re-reading. At times like a poem, like a Pantoum, with its repeating phrases that slip and slide backwards and forwards, starting over and finishing up. Once upon a time there was an orphan who read books and told stories…


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5 Responses to Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

  1. Kath says:

    I’ve heard people rave about this book but have to admit that the title put me off (without me bothering to find out the context in which it’s used – very lazy of me) but your review has me wanting to check it out of the library. This sounds so good! Thanks, Rosie.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Claire says:

    Sounds wonderful – I love the time period, and the story sounds captivating!

    Liked by 2 people

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