Of that generation of mainstream writers who were brought to prominence by the first of Granta‘s Best Young Writers promotions, I steadily lost interest in most of them over the years. Amis fils fell away after just a couple of books, I managed four by Pat Barker before losing interest, it was pretty much the same with Julian Barnes, and the last few novels by Ian McEwan were so dull that the most recent has been sitting on my to-be-read pile for a couple of years without me ever feeling like opening it. Only William Boyd and Graham Swift have, for rather different reasons, stayed the course: I enjoy the historical sweep of Boyd’s novels at his best, and the narrow focus of Swift’s at his best.
So last night, in bed, I picked up Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday to start reading, and I couldn’t let myself settle down to sleep before I’d finished the book. Now it’s a short book, a novella, only 130 pages, but even so I can’t remember the last time I finished a book in such short order.
[As an aside, it is a short work, anything I say about it is going to count as a spoiler to somebody, and in fact I do want to talk about the denouement, so if that sort of thing bothers you, you might as well stop reading now.]
The story is set on an unseasonally warm Sunday at the end of March 1924. It is Mothering Sunday, a day when, traditionally, servants were given the day off to go and visit their own mothers. But Jane Fairchild, not quite as old as the century, is an orphan, and besides she has an assignation on this beautiful afternoon. She is a housemaid for Mr & Mrs Niven out in rural Buckinghamshire; their two sons were both killed in the trenches and, perhaps as a consequence, Mr Niven takes a fatherly interest in young Jane. Jane is having an affair with Paul Sheringham, the only surviving son of a neighbour; but Paul is due to be married to Emma Hobday, the only daughter of another neighbour (Jane suspects it is an arranged marriage), and today will be their last chance to get together. It is unclear whether Mr Niven is aware of the relationship; according to the social norms of the time he would surely be antagonistic to such a desecration of sexual mores and class barriers, but he does seem to facilitate things.
In fact, everything seems to facilitate this assignation. The Nivens, Sheringhams and Hobdays are all due to meet for a celebratory lunch away in Henley, the other servants of course are away with their own mothers; for once, there is no need for secrecy, because there is no-one to observe. For the first and only time, she is able to cycle up to the front door of Paul’s home; for the first and only time they are able to make love in his own bed in his own room. Jane is not possessive, she knows that she can make no claim on Paul; nevertheless, for this climactic moment in their romance, everything is perfect.
Then Paul announces that he is due to meet Emma for lunch. He is already late, but behaves as though he is in no particular hurry; he gets dressed slowly, making a performance of it in front of Jane, then tells Jane to take her time leaving, shows her where to leave the key when she departs, points out a pie in the kitchen if she is hungry, all before driving carefully away. And Jane does take her time; she wanders naked about a house she has never really entered before, she looks at the signs of Paul’s life, eats the pie that has been left out, and only belatedly gets dressed and bicycles back home. Where she finds Mr Niven waiting. There has been a tragedy, Paul drove his car into a tree and was killed, Mr Niven has volunteered to go to the Sheringham’s home ahead of the family and break the news to the servants, will Jane go with him. They find that the Sheringham’s maid has already returned, and has in fact cleaned up Paul’s room, which is when we discover the real reason for Mr Niven’s pre-emptive visit. Was there a note left in the room? Mr Niven suspects, as we suspect, that Paul killed himself. What is never stated, though it came across strongly to me, was that Jane herself was the suicide note.
Later the same year, Mr Niven helps Jane get a job at a bookshop in Oxford, which is where she starts writing, turning herself into a successful novelist whose interviews in old age provide the story we have read. As a writer, we learn, she has borrowed freely from her own life; throughout the novella, we learn how the different people in her life have turned up in her fiction. But the love affair with Paul and the story of his death is something she never has, never could, include in her novels.
Does this sound familiar? A country house in the golden years between the wars; a socially incorrect sexual liaison that has tragic consequences; all of this presented as the origin story of a successful woman writer. That is the story Ian McEwan told in Atonement. But, much as I think Atonement is one of McEwan’s better novels, the difference between that and Mothering Sunday is the difference between McEwan and Swift as writers, and the reason I prefer Swift.
The writer at the heart of McEwan’s novel becomes a writer out of guilt, telling the story is her way of atoning for the wrong she did in precipitating the tragedy. There is no guilt in Swift’s novella. Jane was always going to be a writer; the best thing that Mr Niven does for her is allow her to read the books in his library, the high point of her naked exploration of Paul’s home is discovering the library, where she clutches a copy of Kidnapped passionately to her breast. She is not atoning for the events of this story; she avoids them in her work because they are associated with joy. In McEwan, sex is desperate, they are clinging to the wreckage; in Swift it is joyful. In McEwan, the tragedy occurs because class barriers are broken; in Swift, the tragedy occurs because class barriers are being enforced. In McEwan, everyone closes ranks against the victim/wrongdoer; in Swift, the only person who, perhaps, suspects what Jane and Paul have been up to is her help and support, there is sympathy in the way he breaks the news, and he goes out of his way to help her move into her future. In McEwan the concentration is upon the terrible aftermath of the one sexual encounter; in Swift the concentration is upon the pleasure of the ongoing relationship.
In McEwan, all of this makes for a dramatic novel; in Swift, it makes for an emotionally believable novella.