Ellah Allfrey

One fine spring day

‘Once upon a time’ — as Graham Swift’s novel opens — on Mothering Sunday 1924, a powerful and moving story was about to unfold

The opening of Graham Swift’s new novel clearly signals his intent. ‘Once upon a time’ tells us that this will be a book about adversity and triumph. We know, because this is how fairy tales work, that there is the possibility of a happily ever after. And there is the hint too, in these opening lines, that the telling of the story will be as important as the tale itself.

Once upon a time there was a servant girl, a foundling, who had no family to visit on Mothering Sunday. It is 30 March 1924, a holiday for domestic staff. The Nivens and Sheringhams — occupants of the neighbouring households of Beechwood and Upleigh — are taking lunch at a hotel while their staff travel to visit their families. But Jane Fairchild, maidservant to the Nivens, is left behind. As with the best of fairy tales, the absence of a mother allows our heroine a freedom from expectation or obligation that will, we suspect, be the making of her.

When we first meet Jane she is lying naked in bed contemplating the equally naked form of Paul Sheringham, heir to Upleigh. They have just had sex. In fact, they have been having sex — in the stables, in the greenhouse — for the past six years. Our 22-year-old heroine is coming into womanhood in a world overwhelmed by the loss of a generation of men in the trenches of the Great War. Each of the households has lost two sons. Later in life Jane will recall ‘all that accumulated loss and grief’:

How could anyone be unaware of it? Every week she dusted two rooms where everything was to remain ‘just as it was’. You went in, took a little breath perhaps, and got on with it.

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