Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Mothering Sunday.
Swift’s novella explores secrets left unsaid and revealed eighty years later. Once in the service of Mr. and Mrs. Niven, Jane Fairchild gives an interview of sorts, a final confessional about her life, her inspiration, and that one last secretive tryst in 1924 when she met her lover, the privileged and carefree Paul Sheringham. On this day, Sunday March 30th (a “Mothering Sunday”), the servants visit their families in a ritual that is already fading. With no family of her own, Jane frantically pedals her way to the Sheringham family home at Upleigh. Possessed with “queenly intimacy” (and given a half-crown from Mr. Niven), Jane ends up inside Upleigh House alone with Paul at eleven in the morning.
Jane and Paul may be servant and master, but for this single moment they are free to be with each other. Paul admits that she’s cleverer than him, while she defers to “his princely authority.” But what was once a secret lover and friend has become so much more. For John, the assignation is a ruse to get out of “the Henley expedition” and perhaps secure the house for himself. For Jane, this is perhaps one final chance to lie with him in his bedroom. Paul brazenly consults with Jane as to whether he should go and see his troublesome mistress, who he intends to marry in a fortnight, while Jane fantasizes about what it might be like to actually be his wife. As she silently smokes a cigarette, watching Paul dress with “his seed” trickling out of her onto the bed sheets, she grows too aware of Paul’s upcoming nuptials and his secret desire to make an honest man of himself.
It might be 1924, but the suffocating social proprieties of the Edwardian era still hover, as well as the devastation of the Great War that rocked the worlds of both the Sheringhams and the Nivens. Orphaned since birth, Jane has enough life experience by which to measure the perceptions of those around her--not just of Paul, who lost two brothers in the War and rarely speaks of his fierce Lady Hobday--but also of Mr. and Mrs. Niven, whose family--along with the household budget and the servants--has long been “whittled down” by the hard-pressed wartime years.
In provocative tones, Swift explores the hidden power of a clandestine affair, the twofold power of secrets and loneliness, and the tender notions of heartbreak. Jane fully appreciates her (relative) luck, freedom, and independence, yet she sometimes resents her place in life, so reliant on her employer for her economic survival. While her morning with Paul remains clouded in rapturous reflection, Swift constructs an imaginative tour-de-force as Jane walks naked though Upleigh House. In what will eventually inspire her to become a writer, Jane visits Upleigh’s library, its books reinforcing her desire for a literary life. The learning curve that changes Jane is well drawn as she dresses then contemplates returning to Beechwood to resume her duties.
Swift bathes Jane’s gathering evening in gorgeous apricot light, a gauzy green-gold world that is “impossibly beautiful.” Of larger concern is the terrible tragedy that will shape the rest of Jane’s afternoon and the rest of her life. Lyricism is woven into each and every page, and relief only arrives when Jane embraces the death of her lover. In much turmoil after hearing the news from Mr. Niven, Jane is temporarily distracted, swept away repeatedly by her nagging interior fears, anxieties, and sadness. The novels of Joseph Conrad become her savior, the author’s works allowing Jane to “cross an impossible barrier” and finally seek inspiration to become a writer.
Swift captures perfectly one Sunday in a bygone era, casting his heroine in a perfectly calibrated world. The author’s particular gifts are his short bursts of detail and his ease in balancing Jane’s past with her present. A nearly ninety-year-old woman, Jane narrates the antique art of storytelling, infusing her life with her memories and providing a snapshot of England post-World War I, its upper class and servants, along the swift march across the decades.