BY Amalia Negreponti

GRAHAM SWIFT’S NEW BOOK, Mothering Sunday: A Romance, is simultaneously timely and timelessly subversive and provocative. The novella’s plot begins in 1924, on Mothering Sunday (the United Kingdom’s equivalent of Mother’s Day), when Jane Fairchild — maid to the Niven household, and an orphan — is left to her own devices, because the day is one when those in service are traditionally given leave by their employers to visit their mothers and families. But Jane has neither.

Yet Jane’s day of unusual freedom is also due to the fact that the Nivenses will be absent from their home, having embarked on an excursion to Henley in company with two other aristocratic families. The day is momentous for all three families because they all lost children in the Great War. Only two of the children the three families “share” are still alive: Paul Sheringham and Emma Hobday; and through the enterprising matchmaking of the Nivenses, Paul and Emma are now engaged to be married, thus sealing the three families together even more. For Jane, however, this marriage will mean the end of her seven-year sexual relationship with Paul. This Mothering Sunday is to be the last day she will spend a few hours alone with him, prior to his leaving for Henley for the celebrations with his wife-to-be.

The day begins in stark sunlight, with the two lovers locked together in Paul’s bed in the Sheringham mansion. The day ends in darkness, with Jane and her employer, Mr. Niven, visiting the Sheringham household to inform them of the death of Paul, who was killed as he was speeding toward the celebrations in Henley. Yet that is neither the end of the book nor of Jane. It is in fact the beginning of her evolution into a famous writer, as well as a woman who finds meaning, knowledge, and love.

Jane transforms herself into the kind of person that anyone, including her former employers and their kind, would be honored and delighted to meet. She never becomes “one of them,” though, despite the hallowed status she acquires. Until the end of the book, till the end of her life, Jane feels like a “secret agent,” an interloper, “slipping between worlds.” This is perhaps her greatest, if unacknowledged success: through her accomplishment and the world’s acknowledgment of it, she achieves a unique status as one who has risen above class divides. The fact that she never relinquishes her “interloper” role — in fact, she enhances it by toying with the journalists who pursue her, changing her life story every so often, prevaricating about what is fact and what fiction in her books — is an odd testament to her……..

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