Graham Swift’s new work, a slim novella plainly subtitled ‘A Romance’, is deceptive in its simplicity. By its closing pages, Mothering Sunday has attained a strange grace and power. The story is told through the eyes of Jane Fairchild, an orphan who goes into service with the Niven family at their Berkshire pile, Beechwood House, in 1917. By Mothering Sunday 1924, Jane has become a maid with ‘numberless duties’. Given the day off, she bicycles to a torrid assignment with thoroughbred philanderer Paul Sheringham, spending an afternoon with him that will play out in her memory for the rest of her long life. Swift’s intentions soon become clear: rather than merely describing the affair between a buttoned-up servant and her social superior, he homes in on Jane’s artistic interior and her future development as a writer. The romance is not with a man, but with words.
But how, the book asks, will she get access to them? First she has to cross the virtually unbridgeable divide of class and privilege. The historical moment is well chosen. The year 1924 is the high-water mark of unquestioning British service; it’s significant that 22-year-old Jane wouldn’t have had the