Interestingly in this digital age, most of us read from the hardback version with the Modigliani cover, a visual delight to savour before opening – it made us appreciate the tactile experience of reading from a book rather than a Kindle or an e-reader.
Mothering Sunday opens with an account of events on March 30 1924 which was as the title suggests Mother’s Day. At that time domestic staff traditionally had this day off to visit their mothers.
The book has an arresting opening line which stops you in your tracks
“once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars ….
leaving the reader in no doubt when the action was taking place. We are soon witnesses to the exchanges of a post-coital couple and the nuances of class distinction so acutely observed give a faint sense of foreboding. Swift is an elegant writer, and minutiae, that in other hands might seem irrelevant, are accorded their proper due by him “she would never erase, even when she was ninety, her inner curtsey” The main character is an orphaned maid called Jane Fairchild, the object of a spoilt young man’s fancy but she is no victim. She enjoys his attentions, knows herself to be his intellectual superior yet accepts her lot uncomplainingly. She has an astonishing willingness to do what she’s told yet she can kick over the traces as the opening incident shows.
It is a book about emotional restraint – the parents grieving the deaths of their sons in WW1 are remarkably self-contained as is Jane herself on receiving bad news. There are no outpourings of emotion anywhere yet it is emotionally truthful throughout – the portrait of the maid is entirely believable.
The author is particularly adept in two areas. Firstly, this is a non-linear narrative, interleaved with descriptions of the day is an account of Jane’s later life told as though she had written it herself by recollection. Swift’s ability to write smooth transitions backwards and forwards across time is exceptional – the reader always knows where they are.
Secondly, Swift makes their 1920’s outlook wholly understandable even though life as we know it today is very different. He doesn’t imbue his characters with a 21st century mindset although, as we read here and now in 2017, it’s a fascinating social comment about the society of the day, particularly what the servants knew about the most private of matters and how discreet they were.
It is also a book about literary consolation and there is so much needing to be consoled in 1924. When tragedy strikes, Jane turns to reading – several members of the group considered revisiting the work of Conrad which provided her with such solace.
“People read books didn’t they to get away from themselves, to escape the trouble of their lives?”
And why do people write books ? well, the author has an interesting digression about the nature of storytelling at the very end of the novel
“It was about being true to the very stuff of life ….
Other than some reservations about the description of Jane’s later life (it was felt by some that details were a little sparse here) we were in general agreement that we loved this book for its brevity and found it an absorbing read. A great way to start our spring reading. Many thanks to Margaret for choosing it.