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 integrity. To the end, she stays loyal to the one and only thing that defined her life: herself.

Though the action of Mothering Sunday takes place within a single day, many flash-forwards show the protagonist as a 98-year-old famous writer. The book employs its understatedness, elaborate elegance, and multilayered literary allusions like a Trojan horse: to lull the reader into believing Mothering Sunday is one more erudite mid-war drama that owes much to Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, not to mention Downton Abbey. Yet, in accordance with Swift’s focus on the cracks of fakery in veneers and appearances, Mothering Sunday is more like the bastard child of L. P. Hartley’s seminal The Go-Between.

It is perhaps fitting that Jane herself is, probably, a bastard. One of the book’s central themes is Jane’s foundling status, her motherless-ness. This void is so intense for Jane that it makes her lack of a father or any other family so redundant that it passes unstated. Yet, as befits a book such as this — a matryoshka of layers and cunning paradoxes — every aspect of the story proves the point that appearances can be everything and nothing, according to circumstances.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote Hartley in The Go-Between. That is not the case with Mothering Sunday. Reviewers have categorized the book as “a historical portrait” (The Financial Times) evoking nostalgia for the world lost in the Great War, and a book about the aftermath of a war “that indelibly shaped an era that would crack open the door on a new less class-bound, more egalitarian England” (The New York Times). Mothering Sunday is more than that, though. It is strikingly, vitally modern and relevant in its quietly gut-wrenching portrayal of the chasm of class and its repercussions on individuals and societies. In our times, especially in the United States, socioeconomic inequality is arguably as intense as it was a century ago.

A recent, first-generation immigrant myself, I soon discovered that Europe, the old continent I left behind, has become an unrecognizable tangle of old and new, whereas in the United States, specifically on the East Coast, life can often hew surprisingly close to Downton Abbey. Daily I pass by houses with their separate “Service” and “Resident” entrances, their doormen; I experience the etiquette, norms, rules, invisible divides, and glass walls that define everything from co-op boards to parties — the rungs of the endless ladder to “Arrival.”

Perhaps the darkest, most insidious aspect of class inequality is the defining effect it has on the inner lives of individuals: how they perceive each other, and themselves. The arbitrary, transient nature of social norms belies their iron grip for as long as they endure. The likelihood of an opportunity arising for an “outsider,” like Jane, to climb the socioeconomic ladder is small, despite her talents and strength. It relies too much on randomness. It inevitably comes with many strings attached.

Mothering Sunday makes no bones about all this. Instead, it cuts to the chase, concentrating on a timeless and absolute truth: in intimate, breakthrough moments, under certain circumstances, the chasm of class disappears. These moments inevitably involve the elemental realities of sex and death. And yet, despite their truth and intensity, these moments can be strangled by the fear of transgression, of disrespecting the boundaries set by a hierarchical society.

Without a hint of political correctness or sanctimoniousness, the book acknowledges the inevitability of infiltration between classes, the fact that segregation can never be absolute. It also accepts, as an objective truth, that this commingling, this defiance of the rules, will always create conflict and consequences, however things may evolve. Usually, the strongest prevail, crushing the weak, whether intentionally or not. Once in a blue moon, however, the transgressive connection between two people becomes a path for the vulnerable one to eschew the life she “should have had” and to dare conceive of — and realize — a different, better fate for herself.

Jane prevails through her vulnerability and sheer inaction. Her passivity, born of fear, strangely proves to be a catalyst — an indirect catalyst of doom for her love affair, and a direct catalyst of her own evolution and success story. In the latter case, it is her determination, as well as the serendipitous occasions she turns to her advantage (the close relationship she acquires with her employer, Mr. Niven, when he opens up to her to grieve his sons lost in the war) that forge her path. In the former case, it is Jane’s secret presence within the web that destiny spins around the three families, luring them in. She loses her lover to death, not to his new life that would definitely not have included her.

The theme of free will versus destiny haunts Mothering Sunday. Its ambiguity connects many of the book’s characters, including Paul, Mr. Niven, and Ethel (the Sheringhams’ maid). Only Jane is exempt from it. Her omissions and insinuations affect only minor aspects of the story, of her story. Despite her youth and emotional nature, she has clarity and discipline — and some form of luck. When, after their assignation, Paul speeds off to what proves to be his death, she swallows her emotions by devouring the veal-and-ham pie the maids had left for him.

One reviewer called Swift’s novella “a tale of life and lust […] striking just the right balance between taste and vulgarity.” Yet Jane’s story — especially her relationship to sexuality — is completely unrelated to both taste and vulgarity. She is pragmatic but never cynical: she is in love with Paul, in thrall to him, but she accepts his money. This allows him to assuage his conscience by rationalizing that the exchange of money does not allow for the demand of love — or, at least, possession. Ironically, the same does not seem to apply in the case of Paul marrying Emma, who “is made of five-pound notes”:

Whatever else Paul Sheringham was marrying, he was marrying money. Perhaps he had to, the way he got through his own […] that the marriage might be an elaborate way of obtaining “loot” [that] pleased or, rather, consoled [Jane].

Graham Swift is masterful in evoking the ways class can be used by two people engaged in an intimate affair, to conceal from themselves, as well as each other, that they are in love.

Jane wants Paul to be hers — only hers. She wants a love she can proclaim privately and publicly. Yet she says nothing. She has learned that emotions and actions are construed and dealt with according to the social station of those experiencing them and those judging them. “Cook Milly, who had always had her eccentricities with words” serves as a sobering example, when she “went more seriously funny in the head and was taken away to some place […] where women of her station and condition got taken, never to return.”

In the same way, Jane chooses the path of silencing her emotions, even her empathy, toward her employer, Mr. Niven, when he makes her the secret repository for his grief. The narrator never clarifies whether Jane becomes the repository only of Mr. Niven’s grief:

Mr. Niven didn’t actually take hold of her. Not then. […] 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.”

It is debatable whether the new closeness Jane acquires with her employer after he announces Paul’s death to her is connected to his knowledge of her affair with his son. “She would never know […] how much he knew.” She never asks him. She never asks anyone anything. She never questions her position in life. She just changes it. In a relatively short time, Mr. Niven helps Jane escape her fated life setting her up financially in Oxford.

At Oxford, Jane doesn’t attend university, as she allows her interviewers to believe after she becomes famous. Instead, she gets a job at a local bookstore. “And it became clear soon enough too that the increasing familiarity with books went with an increasing familiarity with customers […] even to go to bed with some of them. […] If she couldn’t have ‘gone to Oxford’ in the other sense, then she became intimate with those who had.” Yet even this fact becomes irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Oxford or not, Jane becomes an intellectual, a celebrated writer — a household name, one for whom the rules are waived. In effect, Jane turns the tables on tragedy. From the moment Paul slips from her life, Jane’s love is no longer about him or the two of them. It is about her. Her necessary pragmatism proves to be her saving grace.

Eventually, Jane marries Donald, a quiet Oxford academic. “Poor Donald, taken away from her forty, fifty years ago. […] Donald and his blue-grey gaze and his rat-a-tat laugh.” Donald sometimes reminds her of Paul. He too abandons her through death, leaving her a widow for most of her life. Yet even though Jane proclaims, “if the truth be known, grief at Donald’s death, the second grief of her life, was like the end of her own life,” the narrator also admits that “she might have jumped on his pyre. Instead of which she became a better and famous writer.” It is among the book’s most radical acknowledgments that even love is not exempt from the necessary selfishness of the survivor — especially when the survivor is a writer.

The interloper experience that Swift evokes through Jane’s reminiscences could be that of a refugee, an immigrant trying to find a home and make it her own. Like all successful immigrants, Jane both finds and creates a home. In her case, this is the language she creates: her writing. Discovering and learning a new language is — especially for writers — always a vital element of the immigration process, the consolidation of a new identity. Through the new language Jane acquires, she becomes an illustrious, much-loved writer and personality. Her words also teach her things about life, things she never knew she knew, such as how language can be used to manipulate emotions, to erect boundaries and obstacles, to discriminate.

And what if orphans really were called orchids? And if the sky was called the ground. And if a tree was called a daffodil. Would it make any difference to the actual nature of things? […] A thing was not a word. But somehow the two — things — became inseparable. Was everything a great fabrication? Words were like an invisible skin, enwrapping the world and giving it reality.

In the beginning there was the Word. And if the word endures, then there is no end. Maybe that is why, in the final pages of the book, the moribund Jane rambles on for a bit too long. The literary allusions and “nudges” of the omniscient, if unreliable narrator become urgent, almost forced. They mirror the last, desperate attempts of a woman who, as she prepares to slip away from life, seeks to define the narrative her way, instilling in the unspokenness of the thing that defined her a meaning that transcends her own existence, gender, time. A kind of immortality. The life that Jane Fairchild came to claim as her own started on the day of her choosing: that Mothering Day.

Swift implies the darker aspects of this day’s origins through Jane’s surname: Fair-child. That is indeed all she is, all she seems to be, at the beginning of the book: a beautiful child-servant. Yet appearances, although paramount, can sometimes prove nothing more than glass veneers that one stone — such as the death of Paul — can shatter.

Why did it seem, at that complexion-changing moment, that she might have been someone else? It was an expression: “not to be yourself.” Why did it seem that she might have been Emma Hobday? Or that she might have been Mr. Niven’s own daughter (though Mr. Niven didn’t have one), who was also Emma Hobday. That Mr. Niven was, himself, Mr. Hobday. That the characters in this story had all been jumbled up. […] Ethel, in fact, suddenly changed. Or perhaps her true Ethelness appeared. She would never know. […] And her look was like the look of the sternest and most forgiving of parents.

Although Jane fleetingly regrets never having had a child — “for her own reasons, she’d always shied away […] You might say she was given no good examples in motherhood” — the regret feels only skin deep. She also refers to herself as “famous and widowed and childless,” and always, primarily, as “orphaned.” Even so, one has the feeling there is a reason she speaks of fame primarily. As for family, for the larger part her untethered-ness seems to have acted as a liberating force: “she had anyway the money she’d saved from her maid’s wages (not having a family that had any call on them).” What does not break her does indeed make her.

Jane starts her life motherless. She ends it childless, but in a way, mother-full: the creator of her own destiny and, finally, of her own past. That is why, aside from the whiff of nostalgia, Jane evokes no sense of real regret or grief as that day in 1924 ends in tragedy. “And everything returned to as it should be. Even though everything was different.”

¤

Amalia Negreponti is the author of three books. She has worked as a journalist for a variety of media, including the BBC, La Règle du jeu, the Huffington Post, and Ta Nea.