9 May, 2016Issue 31.1Literature

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On the Verge of What is Not Sayable

Ed Dodson

Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday: A Romance
Graham Swift
Scribner, 2016
132pp
ISBN 9781471155239
£12.99 (paperback)

 
 
 
 

In an essay entitled ‘Julian Barnes and the Problem of Knowing Too Much’, the literary critic James Wood castigates Barnes, and “too much recent English fiction,” for “speak[ing] over” characters and “tell[ing] them in effect […] that they do not know enough“. This highly self-conscious and ironic “literature of fact, of knowingness,” as he puts it, is “undeniably clever” but overlooks the importance of character, feeling, and subtlety. Wood thus advocates a more understated “literature that discovers, that dares to know less, [that] is always on the verge of what is not sayable”. One recent English novelist who is often discussed as a knowing, postmodern author (alongside Barnes) is Graham Swift, whose latest publication Mothering Sunday: A Romance is already being tipped for the Booker. Swift’s association with postmodernism began with his 1983 novel Waterland, which, despite heralding his breakthrough onto the literary scene, has started to look as dated as the postmodern zeitgeist which informed it. If this was Swift’s “knowing” novel, much of the rest of his oeuvre comes closer to Wood’s ideal—his repressed, usually male, narrators are tantalisingly caught “on the verge of what is not sayable”. In particular, his debut The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980) and his Booker-prize winning masterpiece Last Orders (1996) restrict themselves, like Virginia Woolf’s modernist forerunner Mrs Dalloway (1925), to the said and the unsaid of a single day.

Swift’s latest offering makes superb use, once again, of this self-imposed narrative constraint. Mothering Sunday is set on its eponymous day in 1924—March 30, to be precise—which, as John Sutherland informs us in his review of the novel for the Times, “was the only day in the year when female domestic servants were guaranteed a holiday.” Our narrator is Jane Fairchild, an orphan who was born in 1901 and now serves as a maid at Beechwood, the Berkshire country home of the Niven family (who lost two sons in the war). Being an orphan, Jane is initially unsure how she will spend her free day until Paul Sheringham, a soon-to-be-married local young gent, invites her to continue their affair at his vacant family estate of Upleigh.

If recent English literary fiction has been overly “knowing”, it has also been obsessed with returning to, or rewriting, that most English of genres: the country house novel. Swift has gestured towards this project before—by way of Hyfield House in Out of this World (1988)—but it has been pursued with more depth and to much more acclaim by Kazuo Ishiguo in The Remains of the Day (1989), Ian McEwan in Atonement (2001), and Alan Hollinghurst in The Stranger’s Child (2011)—one Booker-winner and two nominees. Mothering Sunday, which deserves to join this mini-canon, rewrites the country house novel almost without one realising it is doing so. This is because, as James Runcie writes in the Independent, “the principal tone of the novel” is not one of historical or social documentation but “one of post-coital languor”— “a hymn to defiled bed-linen”, as Private Eye jokes. After her illicit activities with Paul, Jane remains in the house alone, her eye drawn to the most intimate of details: “And it was then, as she lifted one knee to counter the commotion, that she felt the trickle from between her legs: his seed leaving her, along with liquid of her own.” This “trickle”, which becomes both a literal and metaphorical “stain” on the not-yet-conjugal bed, is not only discussed for a good ten pages or so here but continues to be appear towards the end of the novel. Why? Because this bodily excess hovers on “the verge of what is not sayable”. Paul, Jane imagines, “must have noticed the trickle. But it was part of his fine disdain not to notice it. […] These were things to be cleared up discreetly by people who cleared up such things.” Their extreme class differences—momentarily overcome as Jane “grasp[ed] one of the brass rods of the bedsteads”—are neatly encapsulated by their differing reactions to this “trickle”. Paul can afford to see but “not to notice” this potentially incriminating relic of their transgression because he has his very own maid to clear it up: “It was Ethel’s job, she realised, to deal with the stain”.

Swift’s intimate “post-coital” tone, then, not only allows for an exploration of interwar English class dynamics but also of how class and gender intersect. This is Jane immediately after sex: “With one hand, the other holding her cigarette, she just brushed, not looking, his moist cock, feeling it stir almost instantly, like some sleeping nestling. As if she might have done such a thing all her life, an idle duchess, stroking a puppy.” Swift has stated in interview that, during the writing of Last Orders, he “got interested in simpler words, simpler phrases, shorter and more economic sentences which might be more transparent and might get you more quickly to the things that matter.” We can see the payoff here. His economy of style—short clauses, light on adjectives, precisely chosen verbs—takes the reader, without forcing her, into the partially-transcended class and gender imbalances of the scene: Jane feels, for once, like “an idle duchess”, achieving this through nothing more than the nonchalance with which she “brushed” Paul’s “cock”.

Jane’s liberation from class and gender constraints is most fully realised by the naked journey she then takes around the house, a journey that serves as an at once lyrical and subversive reimagining of male aristocratic space. Here Swift makes full use of Jane’s stream of consciousness narration:

… even when empty they [libraries] could convey the frowning implication that you should not be there. But then a maid had to dust—and, my, how books could gather dust. Going into the library at Beechwood could be a little like going into the boys’ room upstairs, and the point of libraries, she sometimes thought, was not the books themselves but that they preserved this hallowed atmosphere of not-to-be-disturbed male sanctuary.
So few things could be more shocking than for a woman to enter a library naked. The very idea.

A “male sanctuary”, then, that is constantly disturbed by female maids wiping away the dust that has gathered on unread books. But there is something markedly different about the freedom, the “shock”, of a woman “enter[ing] a library naked”, entering it on her own terms: as a reader, as an erotic presence. The “the subtle liberation that had begun in Paul’s sun-filled bedroom”, as Nat Segnit puts it in the Times Literary Supplement, has spilt over into the rest of the house, and, by the end of the novel, the rest of society: “For a brief few hours, this corner of stuffy, interwar England becomes a gynocracy [a government or society ruled by women] in microcosm.”

It is in that notoriously difficult microcosmic leap from “house” to “society” that Swift, like many others before him, falters slightly—and lets knowingness in through the back door. Swift’s particular strategy is to turn Jane into a successful writer, thereby associating her liberation at Upleigh, implicitly, with the broader emancipation of servants and women across the century. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, we learn that the Joseph Conrad-enthusiast Jane, aged 85, has been recalling this tale for us all along. Thus, as several reviewers note, Mothering Sunday becomes “as much about our imperative for storytelling as it is about the life of its protagonist” (Hannah Beckerman, The Guardian), “the telling of the story will be as important as the tale itself” (Ellah Allfrey, The Spectator). The contemporary Jane reflects, for instance, on the “inconstancy of words”: “A word was a thing, no. A thing was not a word. But somehow the two—things—became inseparable. Was everything a great fabrication?”; “that was the great truth of life, that fact and fiction were always merging, interchanging.” This is exactly what Wood was complaining about in Barnes: simplified versions of philosophical or literary theory being imported into a narrative and recounted to the reader by way of a fictional mouthpiece.

Fortunately, after a brief foray into Jane’s career as a writer, we return to the Mothering Sunday of her youth. After the day’s tragedy has been revealed—on which I shall remain silent—Mr Niven and Jane are riding in his car:

Then, when they’d turned into the sweep in front of Beechwood and he’d switched off the engine he suddenly leant across to her and, like a child, wept—blubbed—even pressed his head, his face to her breasts, so that she thought of when she’d pressed them—had it been only this afternoon?—to the opened pages of a book. ‘I’m so sorry, Jane, I’m so sorry,’ he said, even as his face remained where it was. And she said, involuntarily cradling the back of his head, ‘That’s quite all right, Mr Niven, that’s quite all right.’

There is nothing particularly original or inventive about the simile “like a child” yet it has such force as a description of a master weeping—nay, blubbing—onto his maid. The verb “pressed” is hardly out of the ordinary either, yet it precisely conveys both the intensity of Mr Niven’s emotion and the awkwardness of the scene: a social superior stooping to the “breasts” of a woman he is meant to keep his distance from. Likewise, the phrase “involuntarily cradling” both reduces Mr Niven to a baby and continues to acknowledge the coerced nature of their interaction: Jane, even now, is acting against her will and according to that of her master. His words, like hers, are bound by their repressed, class-bound relationship.

Swift, then, is clearly a knowing author, alert to the multiple political subtleties of the country house tradition. Yet, as Wood hopes, he does not press this knowingness onto his characters. Rather, he allows them to say so much—about class, gender, and, ultimately, Englishness—by saying so little, much like that don’t-ask-don’t-tell “trickle” around which his entire narrative, astonishingly, has been built.

Ed Dodson is a DPhil student at University College working on Contemporary British Fiction and Postcolonial Studies.