November 2018 Open Book Group – Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Thank you to Maggie for moderating Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift.

The OBG crowd quickly swelled to 18 as they streamed in to grab a seat before our ever punctual 1.00 pm kick off.

It’s  Mothering Sunday 1924 twenty-two-year-old Jane Fairchild, foundling and maid to the Niven household has no mother to visit. Her clandestine lover for many years Paul, the heir to the neighbouring Sheringhams, has arranged an assignation in his house for a last morning of passion before he meets Emma Hobday, to whom he has become reluctantly engaged. The Sherrington house is empty as the elder Nivens, Sheringhams, and Hobdays have gone to Henley to celebrate the impending marriage. Between them, they have lost four sons in the Great War. Paul and Emma are their remaining offspring. The day will be Paul’s last, but the start of Jane’s transformation. She becomes a noted writer and the events of that Sunday an inspiration for her future work.

The discussion opened with wide grins that this month’s offering was a short novella and a welcome break from the longer novels we have tackled this year. As members clutched their slim volumes, with its beautiful Modigliani artwork on the cover, we were reminded how wonderfully tactile books are. It had us Kindle readers sighing at the memories.

We appreciated Swift’s skill in capturing the essence of one day in 1924 with the country-house set still in grief from their wartime losses. Swift manages somehow to draw out and slow down time as Jane and Paul lay in bed together. Rather like “post-coital languor” one member appropriately put it. The same member also recalled John Donne’s evocative poem where he chides the rising sun for breaking the nexus between him and his lover.

We enjoyed his portrayal of Jane. She was not your stereotypical upstairs/downstairs maid seduced by the son of the household. She was “a winner” triumphantly declared one member. Intelligent and quick-witted she answered a telephone call from Paul in front of her employees and was able to take in his instructions while stating the caller had the wrong number. As she walked naked around the house, once Paul had left, she did so with a proprietorial air. It was her territory for those few hours.

We concluded that Jane was in love with Paul though she had no expectations that the relationship could ever progress further. She was clear that he was destined to marry within his class and this was their last meeting.

Paul was a more shadowy figure. We debated whether his death was suicide. Had the pressure of being the only surviving son, expected to marry someone he didn’t love and follow a law career he was unsuited for, compound his survivor guilt?  Did that lead to him crashing into a tree on a clear road he knew well?  One member argued that his ritualised behaviour, standing before Jane, as she lay in bed watching him, slowly and carefully dressing in all his best clothes, when he knew he was late for his lunch date with Emma, was significant. Or was it because he was late his speeding caused his demise? A show of hands plumbed for suicide….that’s OBGers for you.

Another member took a step back to consider the nature of storytelling. Jane’s voice is recounting the day, and we only hear Jane’s point of view. She leaves silences in her story particularly regarding her feelings on hearing the news of Paul death from Mr Niven. She tells us Mr Niven saw her turn white, but he was so beside himself with grief that, in arguably the most moving scene in the book, he is oblivious to her emotional state. She provides the reader with no further insights, nor her thoughts on Paul’s fate after they parted.

Discussion moved on the title Mothering Sunday. Jane only had the life-changing experiences of that day because she had no mother to visit. The group considered that the title might be a double play on words. Jane did undertake a mothering role when she comforted Mr Niven. Also while the passion was undeniable, maybe being wiser and more intelligent than Paul there was an element of mothering in the comfort she gave him.

The group was divided over the second half describing Jane’s next 70 years. Some thought the novella should have just been about the one day capturing the moment in time in 1924. Others enjoyed understanding what had happened to Jane post Paul. There were clear comparisons to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Conrad fans welcomed writer Jane’s analysis of his oeuvre.

There were a couple of the detractors who found the book repetitive, and they had difficulty engaging with and caring about the characters. They referenced Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and Kent Haruf’s Our Soul’s at Night as books with similar themes. They considered them superior to Mothering Sunday.

But OBG is ever democratic and, like the majority opinion of Jane Fairchild, Mothering Sunday was declared a winner.


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