Books on Tap read Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift at Champion Brewery on September 1. The novella focuses on the life-changing events of Mothering Sunday, 1924 for the Niven Sheringham and Hobday families, and most importantly for Jane Fairchild, the Niven’s maid and our narrator. For years, she has been having an affair with Paul Niven, the only surviving son of the three landed families. Now, at the brink of his marriage to Helen Hobday, Paul summons Jane to his empty home for what proves to be their last liaison.
With tight, descriptive prose and an engaging narrator, Swift pulls in the reader while he builds up suspense until Paul’s shocking death. He then sweeps the reader through to the end as Jane, whose reliability as narrator is now in doubt, reflects on how the effect of his death and her time with the Nivens shaped her professional life as an author.
Set in the aftermath of World War I, the story is underpinned by both the class differences between Jane and Paul and between Jane and the Nivens. Both of Paul’s older brothers have died in the war, heaping new expectations and responsibilities onto his shoulders, ones which our readers didn’t think he particularly wanted. Both Nivens regret that they can no longer employ as many domestic staff as they once did and are acutely aware that Jane could leave for a better posting.
Jane and the older Paul have been intimate since she joined the Niven household at 16. Today, Jane and the other maids have a rare day off and Paul’s parents have left the house to celebrate his engagement. For the first time, they have sex while completely unclothed. We debated whether the age and class difference made this a consensual relationship and if indeed they loved each other. Paul’s status does mean that Jane has access to high-quality birth control, something that may have been more difficult for her to obtain on her own. Paul takes great care in dressing. After he leaves, Jane wanders through the house naked, eating, observing Paul’s family’s domestic life, leaving traces of herself and seems to emerge reborn.
It is Mr. Niven who tells Jane that Paul has died in a car accident. Late to meet his fiance, he crashes into a tree. This generated much discussion within our group. Some were adamant that Paul committed suicide while others could find no supporting evidence for that view in the text. However, all agree that Jane’s unreliability as a narrator makes a definitive answer impossible. We learn nothing directly from Paul before his death and self-invented, rootless Jane admits that she has lied about herself in interviews for years. Other secrets intrigued us, such as how much of Paul and Jane’s relationship did fellow maid Millie know and was Mr. Niven’s kindness for Jane related to her involvement with Paul. And, would Jane have become a famous writer, paid to invent stories, if Paul had not died that day?
Mr. Niven allows Jane to borrow books from his library and she gravitates to the adventure stories first read by his late sons. Jane experiences Mothering Sunday as a day of adventures and firsts (first time naked with Paul, first time alone in a house, first day of her new life), much the same as a young Marlowe experiences an ill-starred sea voyage in Youth, the Joseph Conrad novel Jane intended to read on her day off before meeting up with Paul.
Finally, we discussed Jane as a character. Both a savvy survivor, motherless with the aspirational invented last name of Fairchild and a manipulative, cold fabulist, Jane captures our attention and holds it through this remarkable meditation on nurturing, freedom and the power of fiction.