Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Truly, there were probably a dozen things about Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday that could have annoyed me –

  • the cloying “Once upon a time…” opening
  • the Cinderella riff
  • the subtitle, ‘A Romance’, for it’s seemingly a story about a maid being taken advantage of…(or is it?)
  • the lengthy descriptions of stains on sheets
  • the improbability of a maid walking around a stately home, naked, and laying books across her bare breasts
  • the 400-page-price-tag on what is actually a novella*

But all is forgiven Mr Swift because, when you revealed your twist – a small but perfect tragedy – I gasped.

I loved Upleigh, Beechworth, the Sheringhams and the Nivens. I loved the fuss over being without the ‘help’ for a day. I loved the glimpses of sadness – all those boys that never came back from War, forever stuck in silver frames and mothers’ memories. I loved the fanciful notion that one day can shape the rest of your life. I loved the gentle words (and wasn’t the least bit offended by the occasional ‘cock’ thrown in to jar me out of my reverie). I loved Jane’s testing of words – jamboree, mugging – if there’s a romance in this book, it’s Jane’s with words. I loved its Englishness. I loved the clever title – Jane the orphan, who is ultimately her own maker, her life a ‘blank sheet’.

“…many things in life — oh so many more than we think — can never be explained at all.”

4/5 Lovely.

Jane eats a lunch of veal and ham pie, and beer “…tasting like brown autumn leaves…”. A perfect description. I imagine Jane ate a braised pie, much like this one by Lavender & Lovage.


*not an issue for me as I borrowed this book from the library but I know some readers are peevish.

23 responses

  1. Interesting write-up Kate. I was thinking about the “A Romance” bit. Do you think he is using it satirically. It doesn’t sound Swift-like to write “a romance” if you know what I mean so I can’t help thinking he’s saying something by using that tag.

    I’m not sure that length should be the main criterion for price. While number of pages will affect the price to some degree, I expect overall that it’s a very small component of the overall cost. Do we expect a 90 minute movie to cost less to see than a 150 minute blockbuster?

    I must read more Swift!

    • The only romance is between Jane and her words. Her relationship with the man in question, although spanning several years, begins as prostitution and ends as a secret affair. But Jane is clever – she doesn’t expect romance.

      I agree with you about price – it’s about quality not quantity – however many on Goodreads disagree with us!

      There are many, many layers to this story and was the sort of book that I’ll read again, next time looking out for different themes.

  2. Kate…yes, Mothering Sunday is a gorgeously wrought novella. And, I agree, a romance it was not; the “seed” stained, soiled sheets that were described by Mr. Swift, (I believe) were suppose to evoke an image of mutually enjoyable, primal sex between master and servant, not a mismatched Romeo & Juliet romance. Their relationship finally culminated, then abruptly vanished…metaphorically…when the sheets were scrubbed clean by Jay’s maidservant counterpart. Both parties benefited from the long-term carnal exploration of each other…I don’t believe that Jay was positioned by Swift to be a victim.

    I may have tainted your thought on the book’s price (see Goodreads review below), but I stick by my belief that this was a short film that was marketed as a full length motion picture. I purchase most all of my books (about 100 novels per year), and donate them to my local library once read, so pricing is not irrelevant…and, I do search the internet for deals.

    • Agree, Jay was no victim and in fact I think she thought she was superior – cleverer and with the added advantage of being a “clean sheet” – no family, no expectations, no obligations. Certainly one of the more interesting characters I’ve come across in the last year or so.

      You’re not alone in thinking the full price was a bit cheeky (as mentioned, I borrowed mine from the library) but that said, I enjoyed this book a lot and will re-read it some day. Had I bought my own copy, it’s one that I would have kept rather than passing on (like you, 95% of my books go to charity once I’ve read them).

  3. I think Jason Steger chatted about this on The Book Club this year and he made it sound divine (although, he does have a certain way of speaking). I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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  7. I disliked this book very much in the beginning. It annoyed the daylights out of me for the very reason you mention then it started to grow on me. I ended up really liking it. I liked the references to Joseph Conrad. I think I would get more out of it in a second read and would like to explore the Conrad references more. I love Mareke on ABC Book Club. She makes me laugh and the relationship between her and Jason is always entertaining.

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