Graham Swift’s latest novel (novella?) Mothering Sunday is subtitled A Romance, but, with its title and subtitle, is misleading; it’s certainly no celebration of motherhood, nor is it, in the conventional modern sense, a romance, despite the naked reclining woman on the cover (a Modigliani, if you’re wondering). I like the initial sense of misdirection, though – it makes one think more carefully about the book. The action of the novel, such as it is, takes place during one day, Mothering Sunday in 1924. A young orphaned maid, Jane, has a rendezvous with her lover, Paul, who is engaged to another woman and is, in the terms of the time, above her station. The first part of the novel describes what takes place, which might be erotic but isn’t, due, I think, to Jane’s holding-back of emotion, her uncertainty about what this relationship is and where it might lead. It’s what follows which is much more significant: the novel is not about Jane’s illicit relationship, but about her life, and though the action is confined to a day, that day is used to construct her entire life, flicking back and forth through time as though glancing through the pages of a book. The small space of time, coupled with the third-person narration which focuses on Jane’s point of view, makes this a tightly-controlled novel, which is significant because this is fiction about constructing narratives, and how we construct our own stories.
Jane, we learn early on, is not typical of a maid: she is clever, she can read, and she borrows books from the library of the house she works in, cheerfully ignoring convention. Language is fascinating to her, and she frequently comments on how we use words to make things real – or seem real – and her thoughts indicate her awareness of how language is used to construct thought. The early section in which she is in bed with Paul is significant mostly for its demonstration of how Jane sees and thinks, then; Paul’s thoughts are absent, and as the story moves on into the afternoon of the day he becomes more a turning point for her than a significant character in his own right; he becomes mythologised in her mind. This is no ‘fallen woman’ narrative, then; Jane is a modern woman who pursues her own path and becomes a writer – a very famous one. We learn about Jane’s past, but also about what she doesn’t reveal in interviews when she is old – Mothering Sunday indicates the parts of her history that she leaves out of her novels and her public persona, and it becomes increasingly clear that she has constructed her own life, and constructs other fictional narratives too.
Jane is an appealing figure, then – liberated, for her time and background, with the audacity and emotional coolness to follow her ambitions. Perhaps it is telling that her favourite reading is boys’ adventure stories, such as those by RL Stevenson; she doesn’t relate to traditionally female novels (such as romantic novels) but instead is inspired to create her own adventure and sense of freedom, against the odds of her circumstances. It is the carnivalesque space of Mothering Sunday, when maids are allowed a day off, which seems to begin her path to success. And after all, if Jane had been visiting her mother like the other maids, she would have been confined to a different domestic space rather than lying in a man’s bed thinking about words and books. The novel itself also works as a space in which language constructs and deconstructs, telling truth and lies, with omissions and half-truths covered up by words. This might seem a slight novel, in length and perhaps events, but it is more complex the more one considers it; it seems to move aside the layers of fiction, the delicate nuances and gentle indications, to uncover the truth that there is no truth: that all fiction is constructed only of words, and words, ultimately, can mean whatever we want them to mean.