Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday: a Hobson’s Choice

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There seems to be a trend going on at the moment for shorter novels. Perhaps the demand for new books from well known authors is too great and they are running short on ideas, or perhaps there is something in the fact that we seem to want smaller and smaller pieces of information – sound bites, film clips and now mini-novels. In this case Mothering Sunday is only 132 pages long, closer to a short story. The latest from Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time, is similarly short, as was Chesil Beach from Ian McEwan. Are we losing our love for a long, tightly plotted novel with lots of action and plenty of characters?

This short piece is just that. Short. Short of a wholesome plot, rather like a first draft that is waiting to be turned into a full-scale novel at a later date.

On Mothering Sunday, household maids were given the day off their chores and allowed time off to visit their own parents. Jane Fairchild, however, is an orphan and has no mother to visit. Instead she gets a phone call from Paul Sheringham, son of the local gentry, asking her to visit him at home. A home conveniently empty of domestic staff, where they can enjoy some intimate time together. Not the hurried pleasures behind the stables or uncomfortably in the bushes, which have characterised their relationship so far, but now in the comfort of Paul’s bed.

There is a stain left on the sheet, the mingled fluids of their lovemaking. Jane dwells on it, since it will become the concern of another maid to change the sheets and wash it out. But will it give them away or will  be misattributed to the woman who Paul is due to marry in two weeks time? In fact, as he lingers with Jane, Paul makes himself late for lunch with his intended bride.

This is 1924. The First World War has left families deprived and depleted. Every remaining son is valuable now. Maids have lost their brothers and husbands, but it is the start of a more relaxed age. Morals are changing. Jane, left in the bed by Paul, decides to wander naked around the empty house and examine the contents.

And that is it, a coupling and its consequences remembered by Jane who goes on to live a very long life that spans almost every year of the twentieth century. I enjoyed the story but I wanted more than the first draft, or I wanted two more tales in a collection of short stories. 132 pages was not enough. An author who can give us Waterland or the Booker winning Last Orders can write us a longer tale.

The cover art for this little book is a detail from a beautiful painting called Reclining Nude by Modigliani. It captures the essence of Jane’s reclining body on the bed, arm behind her head. It was painted in 1917/18, only six years off the date when the book was set. The model’s hair is black and I had imagined Jane was an English blonde, but when I looked there was nowhere that told me anything about how she looked. The painting will have to suffice, but the writing gives us everything we need to make our own pictures.

Photo0586Marcus Hobson is the ARTbop Literary Editor, regular book reviewer, writer, and the Secretary of the Tauranga Writers group Marcus has been, and continues to be, lots of things. An aspiring author of both novels and reviews, he has always said he wants to be a writer and 40 years later is making that come true. He has in the past done such varied things as study ancient and mediaeval history at Uni in London, worked as an archaeologist, as an economist in central and southern Africa, and as truck driver in a quarry. About two years ago he relocated to the beautiful Bay from a finance job in Auckland. He is a lover of art, the written word and a full time fanatical book collector, with over 3,000 volumes on his shelves. He lives close to Katikati with his wife and sometimes their three daughters, two cats, a library and the odd chicken. Marcus is currently working on a “factional” work about World War One.

If you would like to contribute your original book reviews to ARTbop WORDS please forward them to info@artbop.co.nz for the attention of the Literary Editor Marcus Hobson. We prefer the work is emailed in docx format We appreciate one or two jpg images (not enormous ones as they become an uploading issue for ARTbop)

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