Today is the first Sunday in the U.S. for 2016 American football season. In case you haven’t read my bio., I am a life-long fan of the New York Football Giants and every Sunday in the fall I can be found glued to the scores rolling in throughout the day. I am also in a fantasy football league with the guys at work so this gives every Sunday some added excitement. Graham Swift, in his latest work of fiction, also uses the tradition of Sunday being a special day in England at the time when large estates employed servants.
The most important decisions and in our lives can oftentimes be traced to the events of a single day. Jane Fairchild is a writer in her nineties and decided that this would be her career on one preternaturally warm spring day in March of 1924. Jane was a maid at the Beechwoods estate for the Niven family and she was having a secret affair with the upper class son who lived on the neighboring estate and on this day in March her lover summons her to his room for an afternoon of sensual pleasure.
The annual Lenten tradition of giving the staff a day off, called “Mothering Sunday,” was carried on in Britain during the era of large estates which employed servants. The maids, cooks, butlers and other servants were allowed the day off on this special Sunday and many of them made it a habit to visit their mothers. But Jane Fairchild is an orphan and, in fact, she is a foundling so she has no idea what her real name is, if she was ever given one, or what her actual date of birth is. The orphanage named her Jane and assigned her May 1st as a birthday. But Jane is never bitter or upset about her fate as an orphan. She believes that if it were not for her humble and unknown beginnings then she never would have experienced that special Sunday in 1924 and might not have ever become a successful writer.
Jane came into service at Beechwoods as a young girl of sixteen and not long after that she meets and begins a passionate affair with Paul Sheringham. Paul is the confidant and spoiled son of the neighboring Upleigh estate. He had two brothers who were both killed in The Great War so the fact that he is still alive is a miracle and as the only surviving male heir no one ever questions his actions or choices. When Paul and Jane begin their affair Paul pays Jane for their little trysts but as the relationship between them develops and becomes more mature they both find themselves invested in their time spent together and they carry on like this for seven years.
Paul is engaged to a woman named Emma Hobday and when the Sheringhams, Hobdays and Nivens are all meeting for lunch on a warm Sunday in March in 1924 Paul immediately summons Jane to his bedroom so that they can take advantage of her day off in the Sheringham’s empty house. Jane and Paul usually meet in places between the two houses, like the garden path, so this Sunday is very special for Jane. Paul even greets her at the front door, a place where a common maid would never enter the lavish home.
The first part of the book is a description of Jane’s invitation to Paul’s room and what happens once she gets there. Swift’s writing is detailed, sensual and mesmorizing. Jane describes what she sees in Paul’s room since she is visiting it for the first time, she describes how their encounter begins and she describes how Paul gets dressed when they are finished. There is a focus on their nakedness and the sheer revelry of doing what they want in a place that is normally forbidden to them. I was captivated by Swift’s writing and the suspense he creates in the story through Jane’s narrative of what happens on this special Sunday. Jane and Paul never talk about the future or his impending marriage, but Jane assumes that this will be their last encounter and they will never find the time again for these secret and passionate trysts.
My only complaint about the book is the ending. The last part of the narrative becomes solely about Jane and her feelings about being an author. By this time she is a ninety-year-old woman who has had a long and successful career and she becomes philosophical about her progress as a writer. The eroticism and mystique of the first part are lost by the end. Overall, this is definitely a book worth going back and starting from the beginning many times over.
About the Author:
Some of his works have been made into films, including Last Orders, which starred Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins and Waterland which starred Jeremy Irons. Last Orders was a joint winner of the 1996 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and a mildly controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 1996, owing to the superficial similarities in plot to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Waterland was set in The Fens; it is a novel of landscape, history and family, and is often cited as one of the outstanding post-war British novels and has been a set text on the English Literature syllabus in British schools.