Despite the title, Mothering Sunday is lacking in mothers. It is the story of what a young housemaid and orphan, Jane Fairchild, chooses to do, and the consequences of those choices, on Mothering Sunday in 1924, a day when other housemaids visited their mothers. Mothering Sunday also looks forward to the life that Jane is to live—although not as a mother.
Despite being only 149 pages long, Mothering Sunday excels in both breadth and depth. Jane will take advantage of the opportunities offered by a changing, post-war Britain to remake herself anew, going on to become first a shop girl in a bookshop, and then a writer. By contrast, her employers, the Nivens, and their neighbours, the Sheringhams, are looking backwards, trying to maintain old traditions like Mothering Sunday, and the social gap between employer and employee, while suffering from grief caused by losing their sons in the war.
Although not yet a writer, Jane uses her status as an outsider to observe her surroundings closely. She notes from the pictures on the walls, ignored by homeowners and guests, that maids are their “true connoisseurs, as they dusted the frames and cleaned the glass”. Jane is a connoisseur of the pictures on the walls, the otherwise unread books in the library, and the people she finds around her, several of whom will later be included in her novels.
While Mothering Sunday is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, it feels a little stale in comparison to Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders. The observant girl who will defy convention to later become a writer evoked other similar novels, such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement. However, it is an elegant and evocative novel, and well worth reading.