Mothering Sunday 1924 and a housemaid has the day off, a half-crown and permission to use the second bicycle. Nearby the only surviving son of landed gentry has lied about studying law for the morning to avoid meeting his soon-to-be wife thereby enabling a romantic tryst with the neighbor’s maid.
The winding and re-winding way of this story held me to it–I read nearly all the book in one glorious sitting. The prose is perfect, the mood is perfect, only the characters are intentionally flawed.
“…proper ‘houses,’ even modest ones… had their libraries….Libraries too–libraries especially–had normally to be entered with much delicate knocking and caution….even when empty they could convey the frowning implication that you should not be there….Going into the library…could be a little like going into the [dead] boys’ rooms upstairs, and the point of libraries…was not the books themselves but that they preserved this hallowed atmosphere of not-to-be-disturbed male sanctuary.” (pp. 88-89)
The young man, a Crowned Prince to two families now, his brothers and soon-would-have-been brothers-in-law having died in the war, took his privilege as Crowned Prince so for granted that he placed his ashtray on the maid’s belly after making love to her. So privileged that he never hurried, never gave a thought to stains or discarded clothing. Never gave a thought that his unhurried world would not bend to his will. Photo source.
Juxtaposed against the loss of the sons, the loss of all the sons and brothers and husbands and lovers of World War I, is the maid herself–Jane Fairchild. Her name, bestowed when she was taken into an orphanage as an unidentified foundling–a good orphanage she says–whose very life began with loss.
“But she had never known them, the boys who’d had those rooms, and what she mainly thoughts was: A whole room, full of furniture, each. And if you had yourself been comprehensively bereaved at birth–and that was her situation, wasn’t it?–how could you share in all that stuff, how could you have anything left over for it? The war wasn’t her fault, was it?” (p. 124)
I inhaled the very scent of this story, felt the weave of its cloth and wanted to wrap myself in it for days afterward.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift