Mothering Sunday (2017) 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.
Jane Fairchild discovers a freedom through sexual liberation, and with a Dutch cap ‘up her fanny’ rides her bike to an assignation with her lover.
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.
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: 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.
Walk naked in the library, is what Jane does. After Paul leaves, she explores the entire house, catching sight of herself in the mirror. 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.
This day, this Mothering Sunday is a day Jane 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.
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…
Mothering Sunday is published by Scribner UK