Up the garden path

A review by Kate Wilson of Graham Swifts's Mothering Sunday

This artful, short piece of metafiction has won Graham Swift the 2017 Hawthornden Prize. Forming a departure from his much longer previous novels in its crystallization around one central character, the story opens on the life of twenty-two year-old orphan Jane Fairchild, a young woman in service, who on this, what we now call Mothers' Day, October 30, 1924, having no mother to visit, is going to a secret assignation with her lover of seven years, local rich boy, Paul Sheringham. We soon learn that this is to be no common story. Paul is shortly to make a suitable marriage with heiress, Emma Hobday, and both lovers know this must be their last meeting. But what is to follow, no-one would have dreamed of ...

Dreams, however, pervade this short work with the spell-like charm of something far off that is also deep inside1. Swift's fiction is set where we're all set: inside our heads.2 These dreams are the stories we tell ourselves, the hopes we live off, the alternative realities we cling to, just as Jane, when Paul is about to leave their bed, tries to imagine - it was all in her head, in any case -3 that their moment will last forever. What Swift is intent on here is the ability of the novel to create and preserve some permanent present tense, which we the readers can relive and re-inhabit amid the flux of our individual histories, as surely as the older Jane, through the frame narrative, does in the recounting of hers. These are complex metafictional ideas, but more lightly handled than in his previous work. Nevertheless, Mothering Sunday is thematically linked to all of Swift's writing, springing like the other novels before it from his view of history as a process which leaves no human life untouched. To grasp the scope of his ideas is to understand better the groundwork to the novella. In his Afterword to the 25th edition of Waterland, his first acclaimed novel written in 1983, he speaks of his early powerful motivation as a writer which was

to explore the whole mystery of history (local, personal and global), its meaning, if it has any, its distinction, so far as there is one, from mere story (…)4

For Swift, history and the act of telling it are closely related. Fiction shares common ground with History, the accredited sub-science5, in one of its principal, perennial functions6 which is to handle the past. As a form, Swift argues, the novel has a copious ability to deal with time, change, history and memory7. Only through the different forms of narration can the truth be pursued – if the truth be known – along an epistemological chain which moves from lived reality to recorded history, from the collective to the private memory of his story and her story and (moving towards a new version of the truth) on towards fiction, tale, yarn, fable, fantasy, fairy-tales, dreams, moonshine and finally, furthest of all from the light, like Neptune from the sun, that undo-er of truth, the lie, with rumour and its second cousin magic, in the shadows close behind. In face of the reality of their immanent parting, Jane still hopes for some magical arrangement8 which will keep her at Paul's side forever.

Swift's predominant interest in history as both a means of intellectual enquiry and the impetus behind his fictional technique, has lead to the charge by some critics that he is a tedious and exhaustively over-reflective narrator who makes too many demands on the reader, neglects his characters for his themes and weighs down his prose with intertextual references9. Happily, in Mothering Sunday, the shortness of the novella form solves the first two 'problems' for Swift, providing little space for extended historiographical theorizing, whilst giving a keener edge to the idea of history as story – where the actions of the characters are in close-up and the curiosity of readers for the what-next? can be satisfied, as well as their rather more tricksy demand (for the writer as for the historian) always to know how-come?

As to the intertextuality, the story derives some of its charm from what readers bring to it of their own knowledge of other texts, rather than what Swift himself lays out. The location he chooses is somewhere near Henley, within striking distance of Reading, in a place that sounds like a cross between Wallingford or Shakespeare's Bollingbroke, but is neither. The countryside is a pastiche of itself, exactly as conjured up by J.B. Priestley on his English Journey, existing as if in noble lines of verse, lighting up the mind10, and where nostalgia paints the grass the brightest of greens and birds sing as sweetly as they once did in the poems of Blake -or perhaps in the grounds of Downton Abbey? There is some smart lyricism, smooth as syrup – the dazzling rush of this Spring day; the soft onslaught of the birdsong - but at what point does the sweetness become saccharine? And how about the slick, wry sun-bathed, lamb-dotted England?11 Is this the tourist/ abattoir-ridden land (1924 is in the modern age ) you want to think of in this context of rural peace? And how real are the upper class households with servants, the Nivens' family home Beechwood and the Sheringhams' Upleigh, strange replicas of each other, equal in the luxury of (their) many mirrors and the sum of (their) possessions. Ivy Compton-Burnett's 1947 Manservant and Maidservant, the TV series Upstairs Downstairs built on Margaret Powell's 1968 Below Stairs12 and Ishiguro's Remains of the Day haunt the text. These background graphics might be rapidly in-filling as we follow Jane, not yet the self-aware author, around the deserted Upleigh where Paul has left her after their love-making (I have to meet her at half-past one. At the Swan Hotel at Bollingford)13. Increasingly, we suspect that Jane is just one of Swift's narrative devices through which he conjure(s) the non-existent 14, cynically undercutting our willing suspension of disbelief that Jane is real. In a long set piece, Jane walks around naked on plush carpets, touching high-gleam furniture, holding precious books to her naked breasts - no longer as a maid, but as mistress of the house. It could be Paul's wedding gift to her. Or, pulling back the layers of the story, it could be Swift's own pointed prurience – this is his sexiest novel so far, and nothing sells like sex. You take your choice. The politics of nakedness is a strange one. For Jane, in the freedom of her bare skin, it is as if she has been delivered to the world newly born, where she finds her true self (This is Jane Fairchild! This is me!)15 and also the moment when the knowledge is starting to grow inside her, unlike the child she could have had with Paul, that she wants to write. That is a good enough explanation, if you want one. But by now, how much do we really care about Jane, the heroine 'undone' now for the purposes of story? 'Entrancing'16, this set-piece can no longer be to readers robbed of their illusions: 'disruptive' yes, of the trite truth we all know about the social disgrace and the loss of means she would suffer if discovered naked in an employer's house.

Other ghosts stalk the text, now doing damage to the spurious credibility of story. From Ian McEwan's Atonement, we recognize the frame device of the author narrating and reflecting on her own life, this ghost of past and present manipulating what we read and think. And then there is the presence of Chesil Beach with its crumpled sheets and love going wrong, the impolite focus on the physiology of bodily fluids reminiscent of Updike in Rabbit, Run, and the reaching for, but missing (by intent?), the tingling eroticism of Faulk's Birdsong or the impassioned candour of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Swift's sexual vocabulary can be brutal and erupts intermittently out of nowhere as a crass stylistic shock, a sudden draining of energy from the writing around it. So Jane imagines herself with Paul, watching his horses in training amid the colourful display of the rising sun over the grey downs, as he not especially stealthily, clawed her arse. Elsewhere, the simple, basic expressions c***, b****, c*** are a rebellious intrusion, reminding us of the physicality of the procreative young and the distance such words mark from the language of their elders, the showers, his parents, who are considered by Paul to have come down with the last one. Or speaking metafictionally, they may just be there to sell the book.

So where do we put our trust in this novella? Do we, to put it bluntly, believe in the characters? Can we find reasons for our interest in them? Do they re-affirm what we already know of the actions and motives of others? Or should our common-sense and intuition be in revolt? Shall we be saying how come? instead of eagerly awaiting the what next? Take Paul and Jane as a couple. Wouldn't Jane have asked her lover to stay, as Juliette to her Romeo: Therefore stay yet/Thou need'st not to be gone 17, or, at least, created a scene? Wouldn't the two have discussed Emma Hobday, his problems with his parents, the penury of her situation? But no, Swift has decided otherwise. They are to be cold fish, both, lying side by side. She trained in subservience and hiding her feelings, whilst he, whose glory, we are told inexplicably, is to live the unexamined life,18 has no need or wish to explain himself.

Soon we find ourselves doing the work that Swift himself so enjoys, the minutiae of historical re-construction, looking for cause and effect, for origin and end, inexorably backwards to the question 'why?' 19 Why, of all things, did Paul Sheringham this lordliest of the lords in his princely authority20, this stallion, this young man whose birthright was to be sure, this Tarzan who had found his Jane, kill himself by driving into a tree? Would, for example, not being as clever as Jane, be enough to lead him to the desperate thought that he was a hopeless case? 21 And then, on the fateful morning itself, when in bed with Jane, wouldn't he have been unable to accomplish le petit mort, when faced with the thought of his own imminent actual death? At 23, would he have dressed himself so carefully in clothes he knew he would die in? Or rather, was it to keep up appearances, of showing he had been set to do the right thing? Or then again, to make himself fit for his parents' respect - to show them, finally, what they had lost? Chase it as we will, the answer to our questions lie forever buried in the ambiguities, mysteries, paradoxes and allusions that Swift's plots prepare. As Orwell quite rightly points out, it isn't the job of writers to provide solutions22. Perhaps the social conventions had killed Paul as surely as they did Thomas Hardy's Jude. But then, we are in 1924. Or his undying love for Jane: the garden path, Jay. I won't ever lead you up it. That love, which if insisted upon, would not see him newly minted. Swift has hinted at all the possibilities. But none so good as to make both ends of the story meet. That is what readers want above all else, despite everything they might read to the contrary. Swift has not reckoned with our heavy investment in all his fictions nor with the extent of our disappointment, our anger even, when the final slick truism of the very last line - the one to end all discussion - seems to mock our gullibility: telling the truth, he informs us glibly, is about being true to the fact that many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all.

Once the urgency of the plot is removed (it finishes at roughly the midpoint of the novella when Paul's death is known), along with the need for explanations, the story itself recedes by fits and starts, as metafictional concerns become foregrounded. Swift can't resist quick tutorials on the theory of writing. Yet even as the novella slides into self-reference, there is a layering which cannot help but become metaphorical, in a conventional way, so that the story can reassert itself with sudden illuminations running backwards and forwards in the text. At such moments, reading becomes a pleasure again. Never write chronologically, Hilary Mantel advizes, the scene you want will find its place later.23 This is advice Swift follows magisterially; he is a magician of composition. When Mr. Niven, her employer, tells Jane the news of Paul's death, we only learn - much later – towards the end, when the scene is revisited - that she doesn't faint: she was still clutching the handlebars of her bicycle.24 The handlebars remind us of the rush of warm spring air and the thrill of being fully alive on a whirring, whizzing bicycle 25 in the exhilarating description when Jane pedals back to Beechwood, blithely unaware that Paul is dead. These handlebars support her, keep her steady, they become a metaphor for the resilience of youth – she does not faint, she will become an author, she will marry someone who reminds her of Paul. Life goes on. We think also of the fact that she is riding on the 'second bicycle' named after the one belonging formerly to Mr. Niven's second son, James, killed in the Great War along with his brother Philip. It is a gift of grief from Mr Niven, to let her borrow it. So she pedals between two houses and two ways of life that are not her own, just as she will do later as an author, that secret agent slipping between worlds. In this fine piece of writing deftly choreographed, Swift maps the minor brushes and major entanglements of individual destinies and the intrusion of History in their lives, often unbeknown and nearly always, it seems, outside any human control.

So, once again in the story, as repeated in life, history imposes itself on the unsuspecting. Here is Miss Emma Hobday, as imagined by Jane the author, waiting at the hotel, where Paul is to meet her (she will never have the knowledge of his assignation with Jane: only Ethel, the bedmaker, the Upleigh maid, Jane's counterpart, will keep that secret forever). As time passes and it becomes apparent that he is by now intolerably late, the slow realization dawns in Emma's mind that she might be being royally jilted:

She couldn't just sit there, could she and being looked at by others? Her stomach unpleasantly rumbling. She had asked to use the hotel's telephone. This was so unthinkable and embarrassing. But she was now at the centre of a world that was betraying her, undoing her appointed future.26

The narrative tense slides from what appears to be Emma's own internalized monologue, but we realize, now we are more than usually prepared for it, that this can only be Jane's voice - or is it Swift, who is taking the reigns as omniscient narrator? The story, the readers' story, once more recedes. Jane cannot know all this about Emma. She was never there.

So she has to make it up, because Emma's thoughts are opaque to her. And here comes the metafictional joke, the logical snare: Jane hasn't made up Emma Hobday, since this is an account of the people in her own life -Emma Hobday wasn't a character in a book was she? She hadn't invented her 27.

The reader is now alienated, forced to face the fact that Emma Hobday does not exist either inside or outside the text, no matter how hard we have imagined her with an independent life. The fact is, neither do any of the characters live anywhere. We have known this of course, all along, but do we need to be told so cruelly what we already know? The story unwrites itself, unravels, is undermined, is cut loose from its own inner truth; terminally breaks its connection with the reader, whose services are now dispensable:

There was also the word fiction – one day this would be the very thing (Jane) dealt in- which could seem almost totally dismissive of truth. A complete fiction! 28

Reaching the end where all tales must finish, have we been denied the quick, the heart, the nub, the pith, the very stuff of life which is story? Do we we feel cheated after our willing dedication to the pursuit of it? Have we been made fools of, led up the garden path or have we just been right royally jilted like Emma Hobday, waiting in the White Swan for her intended, who was already dead?

1Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday, Scribner, 2016, this paperback edition, 2017, p. 147. This inter-textual reference is to the vision behind the work of Joseph Conrad

2Graham Swift, Waterland, Picador Classic, 2015, Afterword, Introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition

3op. cit, p.69

4ibid, p.361

5Ibid. p.91

6ibid, p.361


8ibid, p.148

9Understanding Graham Swift, David Malcolm, University of South Carolina, 2003, Chp 4, The Novelist's Workshop, p.67 ff

10J.B. Priestley, English Journey, Penguin Books 1977, p.51

11Mothering Sunday, op.cit, p.33

12The inspiration for the 1970's TV series Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.

13Mothering Sunday, p.37

14ibid, p.63

15ibid, p.73

16Hermione Lee, Guardian Books Blog, 14 July, 2017.

17Romeo and Juliet, Act 3 Scene v.

18Mothering Sunday, p. 119

19 Why this revolution and why that movement? Why is it that every so often history demands a bloodbath, a holocaust, an Armageddon? And why is it that every time the time before has taught us nothing? Waterland p.144

20Mothering Sunday, p.13

21MS p.13

22George Orwell, Essays, Penguin Books, 2014, Chp 7, Charles Dickens, - of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist to make constructive suggestions, p.37.

23Hilary Mantel, 4th Reith Lecture, July 4, 2017.

24Mothering Sunday, p. 122

25ibid, p.95

26MS p.120


28MS p.140


Ladies Bicycle from 1920s