Jane Fairchild & Paul Sherringham are lying in bed after making love. Paul is the son of a well to do family & the lovers are taking advantage of an empty house. His parents have gone to Henley to have lunch with his future in-laws, the Hobdays & their neighbours, the Nivens. It’s March 1924. Mothering Sunday, the day when servants are given a holiday to visit their mothers. The Sherringham’s house is empty & Paul has taken the opportunity to arrange this meeting with Jane. Jane has the day off because she’s the Niven’s housemaid. Jane & Paul have been secret lovers for several years & in two weeks, he will be marrying Emma Hobday. This is the last time they will see each other.
That’s all I want to say about the plot of this stunning book. The events of Jane’s whole life are woven through the story of this one day. We learn that Jane is an orphan & left the orphanage with enough education to be able to read (more than just to recognise the word Brasso on a tin) & write, which was unusual in a servant at that time. She’s been in service since she was about 15 & is now 22. Her employer allows her to borrow books from his library, most of which seem never to have been read. She will go on to leave service, work in a bookshop in Oxford, live in London & become a writer. All this is conveyed in the third person although we are seeing everything from Jane’s point of view. The narrative moves from present to past to future effortlessly. Devastating facts are dropped into a casual sentence, so casually that I had to stop listening & wonder if I’d really heard that.
Graham Swift creates a whole world in just 130pp, 3 1/4 hours of listening. The Great War permeates everything about this story. The two houses, in their country estates, have each lost two sons in the War. The young men stare out at Jane from photographs; their rooms are left untouched. The only well-read books in Mr Niven’s library are on a small revolving bookcase next to his chair; even that detail evokes his grief, that he keeps his sons’ favourite book near him. Boys adventure stories – Henty, Rider Haggard, Stevenson – that Jane reads avidly. There are a few books, dated 1915 that still look new & unread, among them a book by Joseph Conrad that shows Jane what a writer can do. So much in this world is unsaid. Each house has only two indoor servants, a cook & a housemaid. The bicycles that Jane & the cook ride on their afternoons out must have belonged to the dead boys but this is never mentioned. They’re called Bicycle One & Bicycle Two.
The sense of grief is there but also of looking to the future as the Sherringhams look forward to Paul’s marriage & his plans to study law. What the characters know or fear is hinted but never spelt out. The transgressive nature of Jane & Paul’s relationship across social classes is evident but there’s also a sense of time moving on & those conventions changing as everything changed after the war. Paul leaves his discarded clothes on the floor & the bed unmade while Jane thinks about the housemaid’s work. Paul is handsome, confident, entitled. We don’t know what he’s thinking or feeling about this last meeting with Jane although by the end of the book, we can speculate. After he rushes away to meet Emma for lunch, Jane slowly walks naked through the empty house, eating the pie left out by the cook for a snack, in possession for a short time, before dressing & riding her bike the long way, back to her everyday life.
Mothering Sunday is such a beautiful book. It has an elegiac quality that reminded me of J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, one of my favourite books. The characters & scenes in this novel will stay with me for a long time.
Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means is also about the aftermath of war but has a very different tone. I heard a discussion of the book on BBC4’s A Good Read. I’d read the book years ago but discovered the audio in our catalogue was read by Juliet Stevenson so couldn’t resist revisiting it.
In London in 1945, a group of young women are living in the May of Teck Club (named after Queen Mary who was born Princess May of Teck), a women’s hostel. The war in Europe has just finished, the war in the Pacific is coming to an end but there’s still rationing, there are bomb sites everywhere – there may even be an unexploded bomb in the garden of the Club if one of the older residents is to be believed. Food & clothes are vital topics of conversation,. A group of girls living on the third floor share a Schiaperelli dress which has consequently been seen all over London. The dress belongs to Selina, cool & beautiful, with several men keen to escort her around. Joanna, the daughter of a country clergyman, unlucky in her love for her father’s curate, gives elocution lessons. Jane Wright works for an unsuccessful & unscrupulous publisher & spends her spare time writing begging letters to famous writers under the instructions of Rudi. Even if the writers don’t send money, an autographed letter from Hemingway is worth something. She is overweight so can’t fit into the Schiaperelli dress but feels she should have extra rations as she’s doing important “brain work” that requires extra calories.
While the girls wait for lovers or brothers to come back from the war, they continue in their jobs, enjoy what social life they can find, scheme to get up on the roof of the Club through the lavatory window to sunbathe, complain about the wallpaper in the drawing room. The three older members of the Club, spinsters who have been exempted from the rule that members should be under 30, provide a history of the Club & take pride in continuing quarrels about religion & proper Club protocol for as long as possible. One young man, Nicholas Farringdon, becomes involved with Selina. He’s a poet who has written an indigestible manuscript full of anarchist sentiments that Jane’s boss wants to publish if he’ll change it. The feeling of being in limbo at the end of the war ends with a tragic event that scatters the residents of the Club & has an impact into the future for several of the residents.
I loved the satire of the publisher, George Johnson, always with an eye to the main chance, exploiting Jane’s willingness to work & her adoration of authors. The war has had an impact on all their lives & now it’s as if they’re just waiting for the war to finally end for their real lives to begin. Muriel Spark looks with a very beady eye at the girls of the title. The Girls of Slender Means was written in 1963, so not that long after the end of the war. Muriel Spark’s sharpness of tone & observation has none of the elegiac quality of Graham Swift’s writing in Mothering Sunday. I wonder if it’s just the passage of time that influences the way writers think of a period. Of course, Swift never knew England in the 1920s as Spark must have known it in the 1940s & of course, they’re very different kinds of writers.
Juliet Stevenson’s narration is excellent as always, she’s one of my favourite readers. Maybe it was because she also recorded the audio book of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, but I was reminded of Pym as I listened. After listening to & reading some very long books lately, these two novellas were just what I was in the mood to listen to.
I’ve never considered listening to audiobooks as somehow cheating or as not real reading. I see them as a way to read even more while I’m cooking, ironing, driving or walking. Apparently some people do but New York Magazine is on my side.