On a sunny afternoon in 1924, a young woman wanders naked through a house, while her lover goes off to meet his fiancee for lunch.
Jane Fairchild, a housemaid at a neighbouring house, is at a loose end on this Mothering Sunday. As a foundling, put into service at 12 years old, she doesn’t have a mother to visit on this unexpectedly warm day. Instead, a telephone call from Paul Sheringham, the only remaining son of Jane’s employers’ friends, calls her on the ‘number 2 bicycle’ to a rendezvous in his bedroom. He’s been her lover for the past seven years and she’s never seen his bedroom before, having met him behind hedges and in the outhouses of the neighbourhood, cycling to meet him and mysteriously going missing from her housemaidly duties.
This novella by Graham Swift is wonderfully underplayed. It’s sensuous and hones in on the details of Jane and Paul’s encounter from Jane’s point of view, later expanding to reveal how the day became a pivotal moment in her decision to become a writer. It’s intimate and universal at the same time, subtly touching on the losses of the Great War, the domestic and social change and ultimately, the possibilities of the twentieth century. At the heart of Mothering Sunday, though, is the closely observed encounter between Jane and Paul on that Sunday and how they take their leave of one another. It’s a novel which just gets more and more poignant with each subsequent reading.