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Mothering Sunday: A Romance

Mothering Sunday: A Romance

4.0 3
by Graham Swift

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On an unseasonably warm spring day in 1924, twenty-two-year-old Jane Fairchild, a maid at an English country house, meets with her secret lover, the young heir of a neighboring estate. He is about to be married to a woman more befitting his social status, and the time has come to end the affair—but events unfold in ways Jane could never have predicted.


On an unseasonably warm spring day in 1924, twenty-two-year-old Jane Fairchild, a maid at an English country house, meets with her secret lover, the young heir of a neighboring estate. He is about to be married to a woman more befitting his social status, and the time has come to end the affair—but events unfold in ways Jane could never have predicted.
As the narrative moves back and forth across the twentieth century, what we know and understand about Jane—about the way she loves, thinks, feels, sees, and remembers—expands with every page. In Mothering Sunday, Booker Prize-winning novelist Graham Swift has crafted an emotionally soaring and profoundly moving work of fiction.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Haunting.” —The New York Times

“Exquisite. . . Mothering Sunday shows love, lust, and ordinary decency struggling against the bars of an unjust English caste system.” —Kazuo Ishiguro, The Guardian

“A book you’ll want to read more than once—and then urge on your friends.” —NPR
“An exquisite, emotionally resonant romance.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A fairy tale of sexual and intellectual awakening.” —The New Yorker
The New York Times Book Review - Sophie Gee
Swift describes events long in the past in a way that gives them intense and permanent presentness. The vividly lost quality of the day is conveyed through a series of repeating motifs. The phone call, white orchids in the Sheringhams' hall, Paul's bedsheets. The story has an unmoored, dreamy quality, which captures the way such days become lodged in the recollections of youth…[Swift's] lush, sorrowful prose gives considerable pleasure.
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
…a carefully chiseled story…Mr. Swift's novels have long had a bookish air about them…In the case of Mothering Sunday, Mr. Swift makes little nods and bows to Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, as well as Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. But Sunday wears such borrowings lightly. As a result, it feels less self-consciously literary than Mr. Swift's earlier novels, and while it has a haunting, ceremonious pace, it also possesses a new emotional intensity.
Publishers Weekly
★ 02/29/2016
Set in 1924, in an England still reeling from the loss of young men to the Great War, this elegiac tale offers a haunting portrait of lives in a world in transition. Its events unfold from the viewpoint of Jane Fairchild, a 22-year-old maid at the Berkshire estate Beechwood. On the titular day—a Sunday before Easter that the aristocracy traditionally give their help off to visit their families—Jane bikes to neighboring Upleigh for a final fling with Paul Sheringham, her wealthy lover for the past five years, who is soon to marry into another blue blood family. No one can anticipate that the day will end abruptly with a devastating tragedy—and, for Jane, an epiphany that marks the start of a future as rich and rewarding as it is unforeseen. The story lingers on the immediate aftermath of Jane and Paul’s tryst and Swift (England and Other Stories) invests its every detail—the order in which Paul hastily dons formal attire to lunch with his fiancé and their families, the casualness with which Jane explores his estate home in the nude—with gravity and symbolic weight. His depiction of a fragile caste clinging to traditions that define their sense of noblesse oblige while struggling to bear the era’s crushing burden of “accumulated loss and grief” is poignant and moving—as is his intimation of a brilliant personal destiny that rises from the ashes of a tragically bygone social order. (Apr.)
Library Journal
One lovely day in March, Jane and Paul make love for the last time. Jane, servant in a great house in the waning Downton days of 1924, can no longer see Paul, a young man from the neighboring house about to be married. What happens next is not Jane's piteous unwinding but the story of an orphan who begins life in service and eventually becomes a great writer and mistress of culture. From the Booker Prize winner.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-01-31
In England of 1924, a maid who knows her affair with an estate owner's son must end moves through that last day with sly humor and sensual detail. Swift (England and Other Stories, 2015, etc.) subtitles this slim novel "A Romance" and begins it like a fairy tale, with the words "Once upon a time." It's the first of numerous ironies. Narrated in the third person from the point of view and stream of consciousness of housemaid Jane Fairchild, 22, the story moves through the closing hours of her affair with Paul Sheringham, 23, the only remaining child of parents who lost their two other boys during World War I. It's Mothering Sunday, when domestics traditionally visit their mothers. Not only is the help vacating the Sheringham premises, but Paul's parents are away on a lunch outing. Many languorous post-coital pages describe how Paul moves naked about his bedroom, how he and Jane share a cigarette in bed, and finally his getting up and dressed and on the road to meet with the woman he is to marry in two weeks. Then come many equally unhurried pages in which Jane wanders naked around the empty house. The one-day time frame is broken by flashbacks to her days as an orphan, her coming into service, and aspects of life above and below stairs. The narrator also steps in to share with the reader things Jane doesn't yet know: that she will die at 98 after a career as a famous novelist and that Paul, for reasons only a spoiler would reveal, will never marry. Jane is a marvelous creation who can seem wry, world-weary, innocent, or lusty, bringing to mind Molly Bloom. Swift has fun with language, with class conventions, and with narrative expectations in a novel where nothing is as simple or obvious as it seems at first.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

ONCE UPON A TIME, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid, the Sheringhams had owned not just four horses in their own stable, but what might be called a “real horse,” a racehorse, a thoroughbred. Its name was Fandango. It was stabled near Newbury. It had never won a damn thing. But it was the family’s indulgence, their hope for fame and glory on the racecourses of southern England. The deal was that Ma and Pa—otherwise known in his strange language as “the shower”—owned the head and body and he and Dick and Freddy had a leg each.
“What about the fourth leg?”
“Oh the fourth leg. That was always the question.”
For most of the time it was just a name, never seen, though an expensively quartered and trained name. It had been sold in 1915—when he’d been fifteen too. “Before you showed up, Jay.” But once, long ago, early one June morning, they’d all gone, for the strange, mad expedition of it, just to watch it, just to watch Fandango, their horse, being galloped over the downs. Just to stand at the rail and watch it, with other horses, thundering towards them, then flashing past. He and Ma and Pa and Dick and Freddy. And—who knows?—some other ghostly interested party who really owned the fourth leg.
He had a hand on her leg.
It was the only time she’d known his eyes go anything close to misty. And she’d had the clear sharp vision (she would have it still when she was ninety) that she might have gone with him—might still somehow miraculously go with him, just him—to stand at the rail and watch Fandango hurtle past, kicking up the mud and dew. She had never seen such a thing but she could imagine it, imagine it clearly. The sun still coming up, a red disc, over the grey downs, the air still crisp and cold, while he shared with her, perhaps, a silver-capped hip flask and, not especially stealthily, clawed her arse.

BUT SHE WATCHED him now move, naked but for a silver signet ring, across the sunlit room. She would not later in life use with any readiness, if at all, the word “stallion” for a man. But such he was. He was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. And he was even what you might call a thoroughbred, though she did not have that word then, any more than she had the word “stallion.” She did not yet have a million words. Thoroughbred: since it was “breeding” and “birth” that counted with his kind. Never mind to what actual purpose.
It was March 1924. It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June. And it must have been a little after noon. A window was flung open, and he walked, unclad, across the sun-filled room as carelessly as any unclad animal. It was his room, wasn’t it? He could do what he liked in it. He clearly could. And she had never been in it before, and never would be again.
And she was naked too.
March 30th 1924. Once upon a time. The shadows from the latticework in the window slipped over him like foliage. Having gathered up the cigarette case and lighter and a little silver ashtray from the dressing table, he turned, and there, beneath a nest of dark hair and fully bathed by sunshine, were his cock and balls, mere floppy and still sticky appendages. She could look at them if she liked, he didn’t mind.
But then he could look at her. She was stretched out naked, except for a pair—her only pair—of very cheap earrings. She hadn’t pulled up the sheet. She had even clasped her hands behind her head the better to look at him. But he could look at her. Feast your eyes. It was an expression that came to her. Expressions had started to come to her. Feast your eyes.
Outside, all Berkshire stretched out too, girded with bright greenery, loud with birdsong, blessed in March with a day in June.
He was still a follower of horses. That is, he still threw money away on them. It was his version of economising, to throw money away. For nearly eight years he’d had money for three, in theory. He called it “loot.” But he would show he could do without it. And what the two of them had been doing for almost seven years cost, as he would sometimes remind her, absolutely nothing. Except secrecy and risk and cunning and a mutual aptitude for being good at it.
But they had never done anything like this. She had never been in this bed before—it was a single bed, but roomy. Or in this room, or in this house. If it cost nothing, then this was the greatest of gifts.
Though if it cost nothing, she might always remind him, then what about the times when he’d given her sixpences? Or was it even threepences? When it was only just beginning, before it got—was it the right word?—serious. But she would never dare remind him. And not now anyway. Or dare throw at him the word “serious.”
He sat on the bed beside her. He ran a hand across her belly as if brushing away invisible dust. Then he arranged on it the lighter and ashtray, retaining the cigarette case. He took two cigarettes from the case, putting one in her own proffered, pouting lips. She had not taken her hands from the back of her head. He lit hers, then his. Then, gathering up the case and lighter to put on the bedside table, he stretched out beside her, the ashtray still positioned halfway between her navel and what these days he would happily, making no bones about it, call her “cunt.”
Cock, balls, cunt. There were some simple, basic expressions.
It was March 30th. It was a Sunday. It was what used to be known as Mothering Sunday.

“WELL, you have a gorgeous day for it, Jane,” Mr. Niven had said as she brought in fresh coffee and toast.
“Yes, sir,” she’d said and she’d wondered quite what he meant by “it” in her case.
“A truly gorgeous day.” As if it were something he had generously provided. And then to Mrs. Niven, “You know, if someone had told us it was going to be like this, we might as well have all packed hampers. A picnic—by the river.”
He said it wistfully, yet eagerly, so that, putting down the toast rack, she’d thought for an instant there might actually be a change of plan and she and Milly would be required to pack a hamper. Wherever the hamper was, and whatever they were supposed to put in it at such inconsiderate notice. This being their day.
And then Mrs. Niven had said, “It’s March, Godfrey,” with a distrusting glance towards the window.
Well, she’d been wrong. The day had only got better.
And anyway the Nivens had their plan, on which the weather could only smile. They were to drive to Henley to meet the Hobdays and the Sheringhams. Given their common predicament—which only occurred once a year and only for a portion of one day—they were all to meet for lunch at Henley and so deal with the temporary bother of having no servants.
It was the Hobdays’ idea—or invitation. Paul Sheringham was to marry Emma Hobday in just two weeks’ time. So the Hobdays had suggested to the Sheringhams an outing for lunch: an opportunity to toast and talk over the forthcoming event, as well as a solution to Sunday’s practical difficulty. And then because the Nivens were close friends and neighbours of the Sheringhams and would be honoured guests at the wedding (and would have the same difficulty), the Nivens—as Mr. Niven had put it to her when first notifying her of these arrangements—had been “roped in.”
This had all made clear one thing she knew already. Whatever else Paul Sheringham was marrying, he was marrying money. Perhaps he had to, the way he got through his own. The Hobdays would be paying in two weeks’ time for a grand wedding, and did you really need to celebrate a forthcoming celebration? Not unless you had plenty to spare. It might demand nothing less than champagne. When Mr. Niven had mentioned the hamper he had perhaps been wondering how much the Hobdays’ liberality could be relied on or how much the day might involve his own pocket.
But that the Hobdays had plenty to spare pleased her. It had nothing to do with her, but it pleased her. That Emma Hobday might be made of five-pound notes, that the marriage might be an elaborate way of obtaining “loot,” pleased or, rather, consoled her. It was all the other things it might entail that—even as Mr. Niven explained about the “roping in”—gnawed at her.
And would Mister Paul and Miss Hobday be joining the party themselves? She couldn’t really ask it directly, vital as it was to her to know. And Mr. Niven didn’t volunteer the information.
“Would you mention these arrangements to Milly? None of it of course need affect—your own arrangements.”
It was not often that he had the occasion to say such a thing.
“Of course, sir.”
“A jamboree in Henley, Jane. A meeting of the tribes. Let’s hope we have the weather for it.”
She wasn’t quite sure what “jamboree” meant, though she felt she had read the word somewhere. But “jam” suggested something jolly.
“I hope so too, sir.”

AND NOW they clearly had the weather for it, and Mr. Niven, whatever his earlier misgivings, was indeed getting rather jolly. He was going to be driving himself. He had already announced that they might as well set off soon, so they could “pootle around” and take advantage of such a lovely morning. He wouldn’t, apparently, be calling on Alf at the garage, who—for the right sum—could become a convincing chauffeur. In any case, as she’d observed over recent years, Mr. Niven liked driving. He even preferred the pleasure of driving to the dignity of being driven. It gave him a boyish zest. And as he was always saying, with a whole variety of intonations, ranging from bluster to lament, times were changing.
Once upon a time, after all, the Nivens would have met the Sheringhams at Sunday service.
“Tribes” had suggested something hot and outdoors. She knew it was to be the George Hotel in Henley. It was not to be a picnic. And it might well have been a day, since it was still March, of evil gales, even snow. But it was a morning like a morning in summer. And Mrs. Niven left the table to go up to get herself ready.
She couldn’t ask, even now with Mr. Niven conveniently alone, “Would Miss Hobday and…?” Even if it sounded like just a maid’s idle curiosity. Wasn’t the coming wedding the only current talking-point? And she certainly couldn’t ask, “If not, then what other separate arrangements might the two of them have in mind?”
She didn’t think that if she were one half of a betrothed couple—or at least Paul Sheringham’s half—she would want, two weeks before their wedding, to attend a jamboree in Henley to be fussed over by the older generation (by what he might have called—she could see him speaking with a cigarette in his mouth and wincingly screwing up his eyes—“three bloody showers together”).
But in any case, if she got no further information, it still left the problem that was peculiarly hers on this day, as Mr. Niven knew, of what to do with it. Today it was painfully peculiar. The gorgeous weather didn’t necessarily help at all. It only seemed—with two weeks to go—to deepen a shadow.
She was going to say to Mr. Niven, when the moment came, that if he—if he and Mrs. Niven—didn’t mind, she might not “go” anywhere. She might just stay here at Beechwood and read a book if that was all right—“her book” as she might put it, though it belonged to Mr. Niven. She might just sit somewhere in the sunshine in the garden.
She knew that Mr. Niven could only approve of such a harmless suggestion. He might even think it was a rather appealing image. And of course it would mean she’d be ready to resume her duties at once, whenever they returned. She could find something to eat in the kitchen. Milly, before she left, might even make her a sandwich. She could have her own “picnic.”
And it might even have happened just like that. The bench in the nook by the sundial. Bumblebees tricked by the weather. The magnolia tree already loaded with blossom. Her book on her lap. She knew which book it would be.
So—she would put the idea to Mr. Niven.
But then the telephone had rung and—it being one of her numberless duties—she’d hastened to answer it. And her heart had soared. That was a phrase you read in books, but it was sometimes actually true of what happened to people. It was true then of herself. Her heart had soared, like some stranded heroine’s in a story. Like the larks she would hear in a little while, trilling and soaring high in the blue sky, as she pedalled her way to Upleigh.
But she’d been careful to say, quite loudly, into the receiver and with her best answering-the-telephone voice that was both maid-like and somewhat queenly, “Yes, madam.”

Meet the Author

Graham Swift was born in 1949 and is the author of ten novels; two collections of short stories; and Making an Elephant, a book of essays, portraits, poetry and reflections on his life in writing. With Waterland he won The Guardian Fiction Award, and with Last Orders the Booker Prize. Both novels have since been made into films. His work has appeared in more than thirty languages.

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Mothering Sunday: A Romance 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A story told so well that I've already ordered another book by Gaham Swift, He weaves in the past and future effortlessly, and the narration makes you feel as if you're allowed to witness that which no one else is in on,
Lula1967 More than 1 year ago
Honestly, this 89 page "novel" (yes, they call this a novel and charged me $12.99 for it) is mediocre. The premise is interesting but the story is boring and the shifting from past to present is confusing. And did I mention that B&N bills this as a "novel" instead of a novella or short story. This is not the first time I've paid top dollar for a tiny amount of content. I don't appreciate the deceptive marketing.
Chuck_N 7 months ago
Pellucid, affecting and profound - a deeply pleasurable read, with a lasting impact.