Thanks to Tony's Book World I listened to this novel and so again am impressed by Tony's ability to find and write about wonderful books. Though I saw and loved the movie Last Orders, I was unaware of the author Graham Swift though he won the 1996 Booker Prize for that book. This novella was published just this spring. Swift also wrote Waterland.
Mothering Sunday was originally a Christian holiday celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent by visits of people to their "mother" church. It later was viewed as a day for servants to have a day off so that whole families could celebrate together. This novella revolves around that holiday in 1924 and is a poignant story on several counts. The story is told from the point of view of Jane Fairfield, who, being a maid, has the day off, but as an orphan, has no family to visit. She begins her day off with a delicious visit to her lover (a manor-born next-door neighbor) who is the only son in that family to have survived the war. Paul is soon to be married and Jane expects this will be the last time they will meet.
We learn of Jane's sad past, learn that she is in a household that allows her to read the books in their library, and that she lives into her 90s, and became a celebrated author. The class separation is less stinging than it might reasonably have been, given Jane's escape from her own class. While the story of that memorable day describes the extremely limited range of behavior possible for Jane and her fellow servants, we know that the aristocratic life itself was changing, though not quite coming to an end.
One great charm of the book is the light tone, spritely is a good term for it. Below is a part of the first few pages to give a taste of it.
Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and there were more horses than cars, and the male servants disappeared and they made do at Upleigh and Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid, the Sheringhams had owned not just four horses in their own stable, but what might be called a "real horse," a racehorse, a thoroughbred. Its name was Fandango. It was stabled near Newbury. It had never won a damn thing. But it was the family's indulgence, their hope for fame and glory on the racecourses of southern England….But once, long ago, early one June morning, they'd all gone, for the strange, mad expedition of it, just to watch it, just to watch Fandango, their horse, being galloped over the downs. Just to stand at the rail and watch it, with other horses, thundering towards them, then flashing past….
It was the only time she'd [Jane] known his eyes to go anything close to misty. And she'd had the clear sharp vision (she would have it still when she was ninety) that she might have gone with him–might still miraculously go with him, just him–to stand at the rail and watch Fandango…
She speaks then of him (Paul Sheringham) as a thoroughbred, though she didn't have that word at the time. "Thoroughbred: since it was "breeding" and "birth" that counted with his kind. Never mind to what actual purpose."
Reading and very much enjoying this book does bring up the question of why we, who so pride ourselves on reducing class distinctions that we went to the trouble of forming our own country, are hopelessly drawn to tales of the upstairs and downstairs Brits of a certain era. It's a mystery.
Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday, originally published by Scribner UK, 2016, 136 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.