Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Mothering Sunday.
It’s hard to imagine this small novel having the emotional impact of the great classics, but Mothering Sunday is so precise and intimate, Swift’s description of time and place so perfect, that it deserves a special place in quality fiction, a finely-etched post-World War One romance. It is Mothering Sunday in England, March 24, 1924. Jane Fairchild, a maid in Beechwood, is preparing for her afternoon off as Mr. and Mrs. Niven, her employers, set off for a celebratory luncheon prior to the nuptials of their friend’s son, Paul Sheringham, and his bride-to-be, Emma Hobday, two weeks hence. The phone rings; after answering, Jane remarks it is a wrong number, then sets her current plans aside, relishing a secret.
For as all the maids engage in visits to their mothers--and the Niven family anticipates a luncheon with the Sheringhams and Hobdays on an unusually beautiful March day--Jane rides her bicycle to Upleigh, where she enters a lovely home by the front door, there to be greeted by her lover. No stodgy, pious servant, Jane is properly dutiful, respectful in her work, but circumspect in the quiet affair she has carried on for a few years with a gentleman of quality: “They’d done all sorts of things together in all sorts of secret locations.” Only this will be their last time together, the final tryst of the maid and her secret lover: “Could life be so cruel yet so bounteous at the same time?” The world seems far away on such a day, two lovers coming together unashamed, familiar in their nakedness, sharing a cigarette as the breeze gently blows the bedroom curtains.
England still staggers from the brutal blows of war, pictures of the man’s dead brothers on the dresser, he the only remaining son. Such pleasant days as this are precious, more so after the weight of grievous loss.
People struggl to mend the torn cloth of family identity, the well-off soothed by the ministrations of the working class, the rituals of gentility muting private agonies, etiquette to soothe even the most shocking of situations. Jane is fortunate that her employer, Mr. Niven, has indulged her curiosity, allowing her to borrow from his extensive library books that feed her soul, the adventures of brave men in sharp contrast to her quiet life. Jane thinks about becoming a writer. But this story, this perfect Mothering Sunday, is something she might never share with anyone else, her secret; “One fragment of a life cannot be the all of it.”
Mothering Sunday focuses on one afternoon of stolen bliss but speaks as well of its aftermath, the years beyond the seminal moment when Jane’s lover welcomes her at the front door, beckons her to park her bicycle in plain sight of the street, makes love to her, then leaves, as expected. In all the years afterward, her memory will never fade, will not lose the sharpness of each detail: their bodies side by side, her hair upon the pillow, his precise attention to each piece of clothing as he dresses. Swift renders an exquisite moment in a time long past, a secret locked forever in a woman’s heart and the solace of language when the human experience is too great to bear alone: “This was the great truth of life, that fact and fiction were always merging, interchanging.”