“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
Great Expectations, Chapter 9.
Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday makes me cry each time I reread it and I think I’ve now read the novella five times. There’s something utterly poignant and special about the story which recreates one life-changing day in the life of the protagonist Jane Fairchild, who relates her exceptional day through multiple chronological perspectives. Special days have been explored before in fiction, notably in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and joyce’s Ulysses and also, in a different way, by Dickens as revealed above.
This playful oscillation between proximity and distance, between direct experience and the distance that gives such experience shape, is largely seamless and captures the way a mind reflects and reflects again. We repeatedly exchange the original point of view of a twenty-two years old maid with that of a much older celebrated novelist. And this interweaving creates an alternating sense of elation, mourning, liberation and acceptance. Perspective is what gives us back to ourselves after any upsetting, powerful experience. Acceptance in the novel singles out Jane as a special survivor. The experience of acceptance, is probably why I adore the novel. Jane could have told a story full of recrimintaion and blames. she is an orphan, she suffers tragedies, yet she carries on and is grateful. She accepts her own condition as being full of possibility despite the difficulties.
There are places in the novel where we know that the protagonist doesn’t know and will never know the truth of her relationship with her lover, the upper-class Paul Cunningham. And the spaces where she knows she doesn’t know , allow her the spaces to create stories that help her to survive and even to thrive.
For eventually she recognises that stories are all we have to make sense or not make sense of our life experiences.
Whether she could have changed the course of her life and ‘ story’ by talking to Paul Cunningham directly on the exceptional day, she will never know. However, Jane Fairfield grows as a result of the magical, impossible gift of an empty grand house and the final intimacy with Paul that leaves her with a change of perspective and new words that never go away. She becomes a writer because she wants to experience new words and the world that accompanies such words. Jane tells her truth and that gives her joy as well as sadness and all the spaces inbetwen too.
A book of consummate skill, humanity and magic. one of the best I have ever read!
So what was it then exactly, this truth-telling? … It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the fact, the one thing only followed from the other, that many things in life —of so many more than we think—can never be explained at all.”
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