Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift

[I read this novella in two halves. When I wrote a response to the first half, I didn’t know what would be coming next.]

7 December 2016
First half – to the chime of 2 o’clock
I’m stopping here not only because it’s exactly half-way through but because the narrator, omniscient but decidedly choosy about what is to be revealed to the reader, has just made a game-changing announcement: ‘she had not known he was already dead.’ Jane, a maid, had known that this day marked the end of the affair with her upper-middle-class lover. She works at a nearby neighbour’s house, but now she is naked and proprietorially exploring the empty house after he has left for lunch with the woman he is to marry in two weeks’ time. There have been constant references to her future self, to the writer she appears to have become, looking back on the day’s events. But here we are being given a reminder that many of the impressions of the day are imprinted before she had full knowledge of just how final it would turn out to be. Or – and we now know why such a big thing has been made of it before this moment – she suspects she has re-cast many of the details in her mind. Does she really remember every word of his little parting speech, for instance, or has she made most of it up? Just as in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, there is more than one authorial consciousness at work here – this narrative seems to be as much Jane’s work as Graham Swift’s.

The announcement of the death is a very deliberate narrative coup, occurring precisely when it does in the story. Not only does it make the reader look to the future we’ve had so many hints of – perhaps even going some way towards suggesting how a decidedly ‘clever’ maid could possibly end up going to Oxford and apparently becoming a writer – but we look back too, and begin to understand all those references to how she has made a kind of jewel of this day for the rest of her life. Who wouldn’t? And, now I think about it, as readers we might not know as much about it as we think. Paul, the lover, drove off unhurriedly. Everything about his departure was unhurried, despite his extreme lateness for what is presented (by Jane) as a ghastly appointment with a fate he can’t avoid. She has been playing with the phrase ‘arranged marriage’ all morning.

The thought that’s occurred to me as I’ve been writing is, has he committed suicide? He’s the surviving son in a family of three boys, the others having been killed within weeks of one another in France in WW1. He was too young to fight and has always, always, made a joke of how he is living life for three now. He routinely spends beyond his means – he’s a gambler – and he is marrying, he hints, for money. Jane herself has decided that it can’t really be for love, can it? Not with flowery, chintzy her. But inside the consciousness of the 20-something Jane, she is aware that the pictures she is creating in her mind are fictions. Her half-formed images of the fiancée are, she knows, hers alone, as are the imagined scenes of the day that his parents and her own bosses are spending together. We’re seeing an author’s mind at work. (I realise that I am doing what Jane does, all the time, imagining motives and scenes I can only guess at – because, like writers, that’s what readers do. This reader, anyway.)

From the beginning, it’s all very elegantly done. In seven years, starting before the end of the War, Jane and Paul have become ever more sophisticated lovers. He was only a boy when it all started, but by the time they are having full-on sex – and we’ve been wondering how they get away with it, especially in a book with a title like Mothering Sunday – he has acquired a Dutch cap for her through a (rather convenient?) doctor friend. Over the same period, she has spent any moments of spare time reading, acquiring the vocabulary – even, as she notes, the word ‘vocabulary’ – that maids usually have no use for. Swift – or maybe it’s really Jane who is in charge of the story’s urbane narrative flow – allows it to back-track, catch up with itself again and, if it needs to, to segue into a flashback or one of those tantalising glimpses of an interesting future.

Is there anything I haven’t mentioned? Jane’s bosses, friends of Paul’s family, have also lost two sons in the War. They had no other children, so Paul’s marriage means something for both families. And… I’ll stop there for now. Except to say that these years following the War have become fascinating for English writers almost a century later. Pat Barker, A S Byatt, Sarah Waters, Alan Hollinghurst…. They have all written novels recently dealing with this dreadful time when favourite sons have not returned from the Front. It’s time to see where Swift goes with it now. (And I really have convinced myself that Paul’s death must be suicide, possibly arising from survivor guilt. We’ll see.)

8 December
Second half
Yes, it’s suicide. Maybe. I should have known, in this book about versions of the truth, that there wouldn’t be a definitive answer. The book’s final words could serve as an epigraph: ‘many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all.’ By this time, the third-person limited form is so close to the ageing Jane’s own voice that these might as well be her words. It has become, as it now looks as though it always had to, a story – or tale, or narrative, as Jane might say as she tries to define what it is that writers create – about what it is to be a writer. To backtrack from that final half-sentence: ‘It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feeling of being alive. It was about finding a language….’ Getting at the truth through presenting different possible versions of it, or a single version that seems to work, whether based (as it often is) on lived experience or not…. You have to do your best with the materials you have to hand – which is what Jane does, until her death as a famous writer at the age of 98.

And I can’t help thinking that this whole project is partly a riposte to a novel I’ve already mentioned, Atonement. In the end, despite it being the only novel of Ian McEwan’s after The Cement Garden that I ever liked, there’s a trickiness about it that I don’t like at all. Atonement becomes a kind of literary whodunit – Bryony did it, and she’s very sorry – while in Mothering Sunday the final words are a declaration of the impossibility of ever presenting life as it is. Both are concerned with the ways that writers of fiction – and all of us, in fact – have to create a version of the truth that works for us. McEwan goes for the revelation. Swift – as when he refuses to let there be a simple explanation of Paul’s death – wants to show that life isn’t really like that. And there just seems to be more truth in Swift’s version.

I’m making it sound as though I really like this little book. And why not? Having established in the first half that the main character is interested in how she presents her own memories of an extraordinary day, Swift makes the biggest theme of the second half all about how writers do what they do. I don’t know why he, a man still in his sixties, chose to make his alter-ego a much older woman born nearly half a century earlier. I suppose he made some writerly choices, ones that allowed him to trawl an interesting era for what it has to offer, and perhaps to demonstrate that truths he knows about don’t only belong to his gender in the second half of the century. It’s a long way from appearing autobiographical, partly because he has had to be so inventive in order to create a plausible picture of a different age. But that isn’t all he’s doing. By having her live until the late 1990s as she looks back in time, and especially as we get that merging of her voice with that of his narrator, he makes Jane’s conclusions seem universal.

Do I need to tell you the plot? Jane wanders nakedly around the house after the cataclysmic news that she doesn’t know yet – there are ten or more pages while the reader knows what she doesn’t – so Swift can add a sly double edge to the idea of the ‘ghost’ she imagines she is, asserting her presence in this extraordinary, impossible-seeming way. And he can direct her to the library, and offer some back-story about how she became a reader with the permission of Mr Niven, the boss she likes for his ‘lenient’ treatment of her.

What would be available for a young woman to read in a middle-class household where only boys have grown up? Swift makes a plausible list for her – ‘Treasure Island, Jane? Are you sure?’ – and soon she discovers, equally plausibly, a writer who seems to speak to her. It’s Conrad, and soon Swift is off and away, offering a route for her to start to order books from bookshops – those half-crown tips come in useful – and sow the seed of an idea: she leaves ‘service’ soon after to work in a bookshop – in Oxford. Ah. And whatever she has learned with her now dead lover stands her in good stead: she makes friends with, then sleeps with, a range of interesting Oxford types, and soon we are happy to believe that her education over these years is as broad as any undergraduate’s sweating away over an essay. (This being the book it is – and I’ve used that phrase before – it’s easy to imagine Swift chuckling away as he adds layer on plausible layer to her biography, the one whose details she can reveal or hide as much as she likes, both in her own novels or to the tiresome interviewers who asks questions that so often miss the point.)

But we’re still grounded in that extraordinary Mothering Sunday, 30th March 1924. The date is mentioned several times, as though to fix it for us as it is fixed for Jane. It comes to have a symbolic significance in something like three different ways. From the start, we’ve understood that Jane has nowhere to go on this one day of the year when servants are given leave to visit their families. Now, the significance of her own orphaned status allows her – it’s definitely her – to play with the idea of the different rebirths in her life. At the orphanage, she’d been given the catch-all name and surname ‘Jane Fairchild’, and a birthday on Mayday, when she was first discovered as a foundling in 1901. That’s one rebirth. And this day that is the end of things is also the day her future self nominates as a new beginning – it’s Conrad’s Youth that she later reads, unable to sleep after the day’s events – so the title of Swift’s novella is based on a very Jane-like play on words. Also, it is made clear in this second half that for seven years at the Nivens’ the cook has been a kind of surrogate mother, but she is effectively killed off in the months following this day – she goes quietly ga-ga and disappears into an institution – so Jane, motherless, has to go out into the world. Her application to work in a bookshop, coupled with a generous reference from Mr Niven, bears fruit before the end of the year.

But the real re-birth is longer term. Those pesky interviewers of the future ask her when she knew she would be a writer, and this is the day she nominates. Fine. Swift has worked so hard to give her that writer’s consciousness I’ve been mentioning all along that we can believe her remembered thoughts to be as real as anything is in this book. Before ever having put pen to paper – her job application seems to be the first mention of any writing beyond laundry lists – she has the right sensibility for her future life, as Swift lets it unfold for us, to be a plausible scenario.

But, at the level of the realistic work of fiction – and Swift makes sure it always remains that – there are loose ends to tie up – or ambiguities to be held up and presented for what they are. Paul’s death, the two families are convinced, is almost certainly suicide. He knew the road well and, of course, Jane knows what they do not: he was in no hurry, so a frantic error on a familiar road seems unlikely. But not, of course, impossible – Swift makes sure there’s some uncertainty despite the families’ relief that no suicide note is found. Mr Niven, who has offered to go and see what is in his neighbour’s house (including, we realise, a possible note) before Paul’s parents arrive home, takes Jane with him.

She had arrived back by mid-afternoon, just as he is ready to set off – Swift sets out the timings meticulously – so now she thinks she will be able to make sure she is the first to find the incriminating stain on the bedclothes, the one that would otherwise have led the maid to believe he had brought his fiancée home. (It’s one of the fictitious possible scenarios Jane loves to create in her mind, that would have explained the stain perfectly well had Paul not died.) They arrive there, but the neighbours’ maid is back early too. The bed is already made, Jane knows, the incriminating sheet in the laundry basket. The level stare that the maid gives Jane makes her realise – or makes her think that it’s highly probable, because nothing’s ever certain – that she knows what she and Paul have been up to. Her own short-term disappearances and late arrivals from shopping trips have been noticed, and tolerated by the Nivenses. Presumably Paul’s were noticed too and maids aren’t blind.

And that’s it, more or less. There’s the obligatory completion of Jane’s later biography, including marriage, childlessness – which she regrets when she’s too old – and the inconveniences of literary fame. But, lying somewhere beneath the suavely managed surface of this very English novel, there’s a theme that Swift only ever touches on very lightly. Jane is fine about never knowing her mother – except the gap is mentioned a dozen times, and she accepts the substitute willingly. In fact, there’s a lot of emptiness eating away at the characters. Paul’s dead brothers, who he pretends to fill in for while contemplating, no doubt, the impossibility of ever doing such a thing. The two sets of parents – ‘That’s all five of them gone now,’ somebody says – are left with nothing in their lives.

So the ‘ghost’ conceit that straddles the middle pages of the book, as Jane’s all too corporeal, naked presence is imagined as somehow not there at all, becomes the central metaphor. As both she and Swift insist at the end, the only thing we can be sure of is that nothing is certain, and that there’s no way of ever getting to a truth that can’t really be said to exist. We make up whatever truth works for us.

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