Tuesday 20 March 2018

Books: Luminous story of surprise and survival

Romance: Mothering Sunday, Graham Swift, Scribner €17.50

Graham Swift who won the Booker Prize for Last Orders.
Graham Swift who won the Booker Prize for Last Orders.

Ronan Farren

It is March 30, 1924, Mothering Sunday, the less commercial predecessor to Mother's Day, and the shadows of the Great War still hang over the peaceful Berkshire countryside. In Upleigh House two of the three sons were killed in the war; in nearby Beechwood, the two sons died.

But this is a day of celebration. The maidservants and cooks have been given the day off and go to visit their mothers. Except for Jane, the Beechwood maid, who is an orphan and has other plans. The Sheringhams and the Nivens of the two houses are meeting with others for a lunch to mark the pending marriage of the surviving Sheringham son, Paul, to Emma Hobday. There are hints that Paul is less than enthusiastic about the marriage and that Emma's money may be a consideration. Meanwhile Paul is alone in Upleigh, theoretically studying his law books. He is 23. Jane Fairchild, the Beechwood maid, is 22, and as both houses empty Jane is cycling to Upleigh where she will spend several hours in the young master's bedroom.

Then Paul will dress, carefully, and head off in his open car to meet his fiancee. Jane will spend some time wandering around the house, naked; she will eat some food the cook had left for Paul, but she will be particularly attracted to the library. A foundling who grew up in an orphanage, Jane has, unlike most maidservants of her day, been taught to read. And she is developing a love of books, aided by her gentle master, Mr Niven, who allows her access to his library. Eventually she makes the short journey back to Beechwood, planning to read in the garden. But there is another dark cloud hanging over what might have seemed an idyllic day, and she has to confront the full shock of it as she reaches Beechwood.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Jane Fairchild, in flashback. She soon left Beechwood and went to Oxford where she worked in a bookshop. She became a novelist and married an academic, though she always remembers the fateful March day in 1924 and determinedly never goes back, not wanting even to see the outside of the two houses.

For Graham Swift, who won the Booker Prize with Last Orders, this short novel is both a story of a precise time and place, a time of post-bellum grief for many broken families left without sons and brothers; and it is too a meditation on the business of writing, as Jane, now in her 90s, looks back on her surprising life.

She remembers how her secret lover Paul once said to her, "You are my friend, Jay" and how it made her head swim. "Friend. It was better perhaps than lover. Not that 'lover' would have been then in her feasible vocabulary..."

Now the writer remembers how she had first read boys' books, because that's what the library contained, then how she found Joseph Conrad. And she recalls how the man who ran the Oxford bookshop gave her a typewriter and " ... that .. was when she really became a writer. The third time. As well as at birth. As well as one fine day in March, when she was a maid."

This is the luminous story of a survivor in a harsh time, who in her old age takes pleasure in gently mocking the interviewers who come to see her, because she knows so much more than they do.

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