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Democratising Contemporary Fiction

‘The magical, the perfect politics of nakedness’: Wandering Bare across Social and Narrative Boundaries in Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday

‘The magical, the perfect politics of nakedness’, ou comment se promener nue au-delà des frontières sociales et narratives dans Mothering Sunday de Graham Swift
Pascale Tollance


Au-delà de la plaisante réécriture du conte de fées qu’il constitue, Mothering Sunday offre à Swift l’occasion de nouer plus intimement que jamais politique et esthétique, comme le signale explicitement la scène clé autour de laquelle cette longue nouvelle ou ce court roman s’étire. Festin carnavalesque, le récit opère un renversement bakhtinien qui fait triompher la servante — et future écrivaine — aux dépens du maître, appelé à disparaître. Hormis cette inversion, c’est la remise en cause de toute forme de hiérarchie qui est ici à l’œuvre comme le signalent les modalités narratives du roman, sa temporalité et les jeux sur la langue qui président à sa composition. L’écriture est la « vraie aventure » : Mothering Sunday s’impose comme « romance » à tous les sens possibles du terme à travers un univers fluide où expériences amoureuse et esthétique ne font qu’un. La nudité revêt ici une importance essentielle : en même temps qu’elle redéfinit les rapports entre les personnages, elle exprime la condition même de celle qui est d’ores et déjà vouée l’écriture. Orpheline, Jane Fairchild est comme une page blanche (« a white sheet ») qu’il ne s’agit pas tant de remplir que de préserver comme espace de liberté et de potentialité où tout est toujours à la fois déjà écrit et encore à écrire.

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  • 1 In the review she wrote for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani described the novel as ‘a kind of (...)
  • 2 ‘Once upon a time’ is one of the key leitmotifs of Waterland: ‘Once upon a time there was a history (...)
  • 3 One may remember the second paragraph of Waterland: ‘Fairy-tale words; fairy-tale advice. But we li (...)
  • 4 In The Light of Day, George experiments with words and is told by Sarah he’s ‘got something’ (132). (...)

1When it came out, Mothering Sunday was acclaimed for the lightness with which it rewrites the Künstlerroman whilst drawing from a wide range of intertextual references, whether they be highbrow or closer to popular culture.1 Both a book about writing and a writer’s book, I would argue that Mothering Sunday is also the novel in which Swift binds more closely than ever the aesthetic and the political. This may not be what one expects at first from a book which calls itself ‘a romance’ while being at the same time a fairy-tale of sorts, as announced by the epigraph (‘You shall go to the ball!’) and by the incipit (‘Once upon a time’)—a phrase in which Swift’s readers will also recognise a self-quotation.2 The generic frame of the narrative is nevertheless immediately blurred by the clause that follows the ‘fairy-tale words’.3 ‘Once upon a time, before the boys were killed’. Set in 1924, the fairy-tale or the romance is haunted by reminders of World War I and it is quite clear that in this case, the singular fate of the maid, Jane Fairchild, is to be read in the light of the particular historical and social context which Swift chooses for his ‘feminist Cinderella’ (Kakutani). That the first fully-fledged writer to feature in Swift’s fiction4 should come from the ‘edge’ of society, a woman, a servant, an orphan ‘born with nothing to her name’ (90) is meaningful enough. Yet, as Jacques Rancière argues in Les Bords de la fiction, if ‘the democratic revolution of fiction’ allows ‘those who are nothing to become everything’, what is at stake is not simply the possibility for them to get the main part but to be involved in the very make-up of the text:

La révolution démocratique de la fiction n’est pas le grand surgissement des masses sur la scène de l’Histoire. Elle n’en est pas moins fidèle à la définition moderne de la révolution : celle-ci est le processus par lequel ceux qui n’étaient rien deviennent tout. Mais devenir tout, dans l’ordre fictionnel, ce n’est pas devenir le personnage principal de l’histoire. C’est devenir le tissu même au sein duquel—par les mailles duquel—des événements tiennent les uns aux autres. (152)

  • 5 ‘Je localiserai la politique de la fiction non du côté de ce qu’elle représente, mais du côté de ce (...)

2The political dimension of Mothering Sunday can be found in the way it challenges narrative and linguistic hierarchies as well as social hierarchies, a radical regime of redistribution which places the emphasis on what fiction ‘performs’ or ‘operates’ and not just on what it ‘represents’, to take up an opposition developed by Rancière in Le Fil perdu.5 From his very first novel, Graham Swift has systematically refused the straightjacket of linear development, breaking down narrative components and unhooking fixed meanings through repetition and variation. Mothering Sunday enhances this process and brings its own nuances to it. As it happens, the narrative foregrounds one moment that is explicitly presented as a ‘political’ moment, a moment of ‘nakedness’ which brings together so called master and servant: ‘And was she even a maid any more, stretched here on his bed? And was he even a ‘master’? It was the magic, the perfect politics of nakedness’ (31). The fact that the maid should take off her clothes in the kind of house where she would normally be tidying the clothes of others is one of the numerous inversions in which the text delights during this ‘upside down day’ (34). Yet, this comic reversal is not to remain an exceptional interlude before the return to order for that order is shown to have been deeply shattered. What takes place in the master’s bed is the beginning of an adventure that sets free a ‘potential for experience’ which, according to Thomas Docherty binds together aesthetics and democracy, something which ‘allows politics to emerge’ (2006, 19). The romance which starts in bed, only starts in bed. As Jane wanders naked through the house and walks naked into the library it is another adventure with no predetermined end which enfolds, while potentiality gets woven at every step into the fabric of the text.

‘This upside down day’ (Mothering Sunday, 34)

3Mothering Sunday conveys the exhilarating sense of freedom experienced by a servant escaping through the net of a rigid class system. Like her namesake, Jane Eyre, another orphan forced to enter the service of others, Jane Fairchild relies on no one but herself to get by in the world. In spite of that, one cannot overlook the fact that Mothering Sunday makes Jane’s emancipation start in the master’s house and more precisely in the master’s bed. So as to avoid certain confusions, the reader is given hints that Jane is not naive about the ancestral power relations involved in the intimacy between masters and servants. However consensual their relationship may have been from the start, Jane is very blunt about the little coin Paul used to give her after their secret ‘transactions’ (19):

Though she was eighty or ninety and was asked, as she would be, even in public interviews, to look back on her younger years, she felt she could fairly claim (though of course never did) that one of her earliest situations in life was that of a prostitute. Orphan. Maid. Prostitute. (20)

4The moment of nakedness which is presented as a perfect political moment describes two bodies lying next to each other which may be looked upon just as bodies. ‘Two fish on a white plate, she thought’ (31): at this point the erotic picture turns into a still life of sorts, love and its small death herald death, which ‘makes all men equal’ as Vic the undertaker from Last Orders points out (143). The servant and the son of the house are not just naked, they are said to be more naked than ever (‘They had never been as naked as this’ (10)). Instead of fumbling in a corner of the greenhouse, half-undressed, the couple can now lie at their ease. But this superlative nakedness seems to describe more than just the absence of clothes, just as the horizontal position of the lovers suggests more than relaxation. As Jane is ‘stretched out naked’ (3) and Paul ‘stretche[s] out beside her’ (5) while ‘[o]utside, all Berkshire stretche[s] out too’ (4), it is the vertical line, the ladder on which Jane supposedly stands below Paul that is removed.

  • 6 ‘Le moment quelconque’ is the title of one of the chapters in Les Bords de la fiction.
  • 7 Ricœur draws from Nietzsche’s’monumental history’ his notion of ‘monumental time’ to comment on Mrs (...)

5Swift also inverts the hierarchy between the moment that might have mattered the most for the bridegroom to be, the lunch with his fiancée, and that other moment that might have remained in the wings of official history, a ‘non-descript’6 moment to quote Rancière. But he also allows his characters to inhabit side by side a sort of ‘empty time’ whose potential expansion cancels the usual markers of the very different lives each of the characters lives. Rancière describes this ‘empty time’ as being ‘normally unknown by those who ordinarily devote their lives either to the tasks of feeding or repairing’ (‘un temps normalement inconnu de ceux dont l’ordinaire se partage entre le travail nourricier et le travail réparateur’); it is ‘a conquest, a transgression of the divide separating human beings into two groups according to the ways in which they inhabit time’ (‘une conquête, une transgression du partage séparant les humains en deux selon leur manière d’habiter le temps’ (Rancière 2017, 151)). The sense of literally ‘inhabiting the moment’ or ‘inhabiting time’ transpires when Jane describes the ‘peace’ following their lovemaking as a ‘region’ in which they can dwell: ‘Now it seemed that what they’d done was only a doorway itself to this supreme region of utter mutual nakedness’ (32). But Swift takes his small political revolution further: this day will be through and through ‘an upside-down day’ (34). Time is not allowed to stretch in the same way for Jane and Paul. Jane could lie in bed all day long if she wanted to; the more Paul Sheringham delays, the more he will have ‘to step on it’ (38). Jane actually marvels at Paul’s slowness: ‘he was in no hurry’ and yet realises that ‘His eventual car journey must be getting impossibly fast’ (39). The empty time which brings them together and the time of the watches and clocks will eventually collide. Paul is in fact getting dressed for what will be his own funeral, whereas Jane can remain undressed for as long as she wants. The character who is ordinarily enslaved to a ruthless timetable is the one who will find a way to escape the tyranny of ‘monumental time’, which Ricœur associates with ‘figures of authority and power’ and which stands at the opposite pole of what he calls ‘le temps vif’, lived time.7

6Together with this shift in the subjection to time, it is in the occupation of space that the text marks a reversal. As Jane is being abandoned by Paul Sheringham, it looks as if he were being dislodged—and indeed Paul is soon to be driven out of the story as he drives to his death. The young man invites his lover to remain undisturbed in bed, to stay for as long as she pleases and help herself to everything she wants, as if he wished to make her mistress of the house, queen of his small kingdom. Jane gets to open all the doors undisturbed, eats the pie and drinks the beer, and walks naked into the library, more precisely into ‘the hallowed atmosphere of not to be disturbed male sanctuary’ (66) on a day, let’s remember, when maids were granted special leave to visit theirs mothers and go to their so called ‘mother church’. One of the small ironies on which the maid dwells is that Jane has left on the immaculate sheet one of those stains with which she is very familiar as a maid, and which it is normally her job to remove. The indulgence in this detail may be one of the things which led James Runcie in The Independent to declare that the novel ‘strik[es] the right balance between taste and vulgarity’. But the ‘vulgarity’, if that’s what one wants to call it, could have been short-lived: after the holiday, the revelry in the bedroom, the carnivalesque process of enthronement of the maid, her undisturbed and enthusiastic partaking in everything forbidden in a house which, as she points out, ‘she might ransack if she wished’ (53), the rule of everyday might have simply resumed and the ‘upside down day’ been turned back the right way round, so to speak. The fact that the conspicuous mark on the sheet is not to be a one off but the first of many may be taken as a sign that after all those years Swift still likes a fairy-tale: true to his epigraph, he plays Fairy Godfather to Jane and allows her to have a ‘ball’ of a lifetime—instead of transforming her back into a maid, the sort of ‘good fairy’ whose duty it is to make stains ‘vanish’ (47). Yet if we are able to read the story as more than a pleasant fantasy, it is first, I would argue, because of the historical moment in which Swift anchors his story, a moment of vulnerability where lines get redrawn.

‘Look where regimentation had got the world’ (Mothering Sunday, 90)

7The moment which seems to be frozen in time—two bodies lying side by side on a bed—is but one picture in a kaleidoscopic succession where we are also invited to look at these bodies as they are shaped and marked apart by history. The maid never ceases to wonder and surmise about the behaviour of this man and ‘his kind’ (16). She keeps alluding to the ‘meeting of the tribes’ (7) that is taking place as she and Paul lie in bed. But it is 1924 and the ‘tribes’ have been badly hit, they have become vulnerable. Something has been stripped there too: ‘the family, like many others had been whittled down’ (15). Something of the former rigidity and decorum that used to prevail in the management of the house has gone: ‘And the house was not any more, let’s face it, as in the old days, a firmly governed, a strictly regimented house. Look where regimentation had got the world’ (90). The immediate consequence of this relaxation of the rules is that there have been loopholes through which Jane has been able to abscond—either to meet with her lover or to read. There have been ‘the quieter stretches of the day—when she was simply not to be found’ (90). But the change in the ‘government’ of the house takes on a deeper resonance: Jane’s story of emancipation is to be read as an alternative to an order and a logic whose outcome was destruction and self-destruction. The naked couple is not completely alone in the room: opposite them, on either side of the mirror, stand another couple: ‘They, the brothers, were on the dressing table now, in silver frames . . . Both in officers’caps’ (41). The brothers are like a pair of eyes who, Jane feels, ‘stare’ at her (56)—a way of underlining perhaps that the bodies lying on the bed cannot be seen completely separately from the two bodies who laid down their lives and lay on the battlefield. If the younger son, now lying naked in bed with a woman, has escaped their fate, he is nevertheless soon to be sacrificed too—if only to a tribal law which demands that he marries a woman of his ‘kind’.

8Paul Sheringham’s car ‘accident’ remains shrouded in mystery, but it seems that something has been ‘whittled down’ in him too: although he is going through the motions, his heart does not seem to be in what the ancestral laws of his class require. As a matter of fact, at the precise moment when he is lying in bed with his lover, the last son of the house is meant to be deep in his law books, but as Jane points out: ‘He had about as much intention of becoming a lawyer as becoming a lettuce’ (30). And while he covers his nakedness slowly and reluctantly, there is no way of deciding whether ‘the sureness, the aloofness, the unaccountable unhurriedness’ (42) is simply a sign of the confidence, the arrogance of his ‘kind’ or the expression of something melancholy, something gone brittle. Either way, Paul’s death takes place at a point where he has reached a dead end: the last son of the house can no more embrace the fate that has been written for him than he can imagine a way out of it. It will be up to Jane to invent a story which challenges the pre-determined pattern of a regimented order. Paul Sheringham’s parting words to Jane, as he imagines how he could explain to others the disappearance of the pie he invites her to eat, take on an interesting resonance at second reading: ‘Not that I have to tell anyone anything. Anything.’ (53) The words carry an ambiguity which does not only intensify the blur that surrounds Paul’s death but seem to place Jane, on which Paul ‘bestows . . . his whole house’ (53), on a threshold. While the first ‘anything’ is connected to a negative form, the second ‘Anything’, an echo severed and orphaned from the sentence to which it belongs, floats free of all determination: in it lies the realm of possibility which is now open to Jane.

Nakedness and ‘romance’

9Mothering Sunday entails a serious revision of the fairy-tale as it kills the prince half-way through in order to allow Jane to move on and start her long happy life. However, the adventure does start between the sheets of a bed where something already writes itself. The two bodies stretched side by side find themselves on an equal footing not just because they are as naked as on the day they were born. They also find themselves naked and equal in front of the unpredictability of desire—a desire not entirely caught in the net of social determinations, a desire which has taken an unusual turn in the road and been allowed to come off free from the all-too familiar, ancestral pattern of sexual domination and abuse.

  • 8 Docherty insists on the importance of what he calls ‘hypocrisy’ in Narrative Democracy. He quotes B (...)

10In the ‘supreme region of utter mutual nakedness’ which the lovers momentarily inhabit they lie side by side, ‘not talking, watching the smoke of their cigarette rise up and merge under the ceiling’: ‘For a while such smoke sharing was enough’ (31). Were the reader tempted to read in this moment a form of silent communion, the humorous comparison that follows reasserts both the proximity and distance of the two lovers: ‘Their cigarettes, now and then merely lodged vertically in their lips, were like miniature companion chimneys’ (31). Mutual nakedness cannot be confused with transparency but leaves a space for what cannot be shared, a space fundamental to democracy if we follow the argument that Thomas Docherty develops throughout Aesthetic Democracy.8 The distance which remains between the lovers makes room for play and that includes a little game with gender identities. Both lovers delight in the fact that Jane called Paul ‘madam’ repeatedly on the phone, ‘Yes, madam. . . No, madam… that’s quite all right, madam’ (11), to conceal his identity. Conversely Paul likes to call Jane Jay, reducing her name to its genderless initial or using a diminutive ordinarily reserved for male names (James, Jeffrey, Julian. . .), all the while stressing that Jay is also his ‘friend’ (20).

11Jane’s adventure starts literally between the sheets in the encounter with the uncertainty of the other’s desire. It also starts with a literal play both in and on the ‘sheets’ for, as she lies in bed, the young woman delights in endless lexical considerations and in the new world of possibility that they open. Jane’s metalinguistic activity runs side by side, but also interferes with, her romantic interlude, introducing distance and humour throughout the scene. From the first it is impossible to imagine that the maid’s emancipation could be complete with her staying in the bedroom, albeit in queenly fashion. Yet as Jane wanders inside the house and then further and further away into the wide world, the connection with the naked moment is never severed. The maid silently asserts the continuity between the various spaces she crosses: she equally and unashamedly enjoys the bed of the son and the library of his father, a library full of boys’ books and of romances of the sea. In her fascination with the seafaring adventures of an author called Conrad, Jane also recognises an even greater adventure, that of writing ‘in a whole new language’: ‘It was like crossing some impossible—impassable—barrier, and she felt that perhaps that was the greater thing, the greater achievement and truer adventure’ (129). Her fancy leads her to imagine an unusual encounter in which Conrad would be no towering father figure but a naked old man next to whom she could lie naked:

She had even sometimes imagined what it might be like to lie in bed with Conrad, just to lie beside him, not speaking, a naked, ageing Conrad, both of them looking up and watching the smoke from their cigarettes rising, mingling under the ceiling, as if the smoke held some truth greater than either of them could find words for. (130)

12Jane’s journey of initiation is marked by successive stages but at the same time her story binds together the various aspects of her ‘education’: the different meanings of her ‘romance’ unfold but they are also made to co-exist. If we do not immediately connect the subtitle ‘a romance’ with the democratic adventure that is to follow, Jane’s story puts side by side the exposure involved in loving, crossing oceans and writing. ‘Romance’ is also the title of one of the novels Conrad co-authored with Ford Madox Ford, so that it connects Jane’s aesthetic experience with collaboration or co-writing. Mothering Sunday does not simply pay homage to Conrad, it inserts itself in that larger text to which every writer contributes in their own way.

Democracy and the Space for the ‘non-existent’ (Mothering Sunday, 55)

  • 9 A word often used by Rancière. In Le Fil perdu he talks about the ‘deceitful tyranny of storytellin (...)

13What Rancière calls ‘the tyranny’9 of narrative sequence is something that Swift threw overboard from the very beginning of his writing career. By breaking down narrative components, his fiction has also always challenged any fixed hierarchy between them, creating something which resonates with what Rancière calls in Les Bords de la fiction ‘a time of coexistence’ which he sees as ‘a doubly inclusive time’ (‘un temps doublement inclusif’) challenging the hierarchy both between the different moments of the narrative and between those who share them:

[. . .] un temps de la coexistence où les moments pénètrent les uns dans les autres et persistent en s’étendant en cercles de plus en plus larges; un temps partagé qui ne connaît plus de hiérarchie entre ceux qui l’occupent. (153)

14In Mothering Sunday, Swift intensifies his circular and inclusive method, each circle reaching out further and gathering new material before closing again somewhere where we have been before. This goes hand in hand with the ‘stretching’ of the same material and the impression that time is extensible and does not have to be filled. The one-day holiday accommodates what Rancière calls the moment that cannot be measured, ‘le moment sans mesure’. In it lies not only the possibility of escaping regimented time, but as Rancière suggests, fiction’s infinite reach: ‘la capacité de la fiction par quoi la vie s’infinitise, se porte au-delà d’elle-même’ (2017, 183). Jane discovers something infinitely precious, the possibility for nothing to happen, the very stuff of fiction according to Rancière:

Cette vie où il n’arrive rien, ce n’est pas simplement le désir d’une jeune femme écartée du monde, c’est le lieu paradoxal de la fiction, le lieu sans histoire dans lequel peuvent se déployer les histoires. La jeune femme est la gardienne de la fiction, la gardienne de cette vraie vie dont la possibilité doit toujours être préservée. (179)

  • 10 In Narrative Democracy, Docherty borrows from Derrida the notion of ‘absolute hospitality’ and desc (...)

15Rancière, who is talking about the anonymous young woman in João Guimarães Rosa’s short story ‘Nenhum, nenhuma’, might be talking about Jane here. The beautifully empty day stretching ahead is no ‘mothering’ day for the daughter who has no mother to go to, but it is the day when she may give birth to herself. As she walks through the house, Jane has started to ‘inhabit potentiality’ or ‘become hospitable to it’;10 and as she steps into the library, she is entering a pagan ‘sanctuary’ (66) of whom she will become the ‘guardian’.

  • 11 Docherty elaborates on the neo-Aristotelian distinction between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’: ‘The “punct (...)

16The possibility to ‘preserve something’, to leave an empty space for something that always remains to be written is embodied in the very texture of the narrative, in the light and airy quality of a text that spreads out on the page and gives pride of place to white punctuation. Space is also preserved in the narrative’s indulgence in moments of stasis which do not simply stretch but constantly redefine the moment: the multiple pictures, mirrors, frames and elaborate framing devices that shape the story materialise the need to pause and puncture the linear development of the story, offering multiple angles from which to approach it, allowing the reader to view and review the same scene. But what is also striking in Mothering Sunday is the extensive use of modal forms. The narrative is full of ‘would-s’ that do not so much open onto a future (which remains sketchy anyway) as they enable us to view the present, or the past in the making, from the point of view of the future. By introducing the mode of the future anterior, the text makes us fully aware that the present moment does not exist as such but as an event that can never coincide with itself. The regular allusions to a number of shadowy interviews and interviewers (‘Oh, yes, she would say, the glint in her eye’, 90) contributes to the sense of a narrative that exists largely as the ‘being before of a being after’ (Docherty 1996, 118). The narrative thus breaks down the radical separation between what Docherty calls the ‘punctual’ and the ‘eventual’ or refuses ‘to collapse’ eventuality into punctuality11 (9), turning the whole text into a provisional construct: ‘in-finity’ does not only lie in the empty spaces in-between but lines every single moment. As it happens, ‘would’ also introduces a hypothetic mode, side by side with the numerous occurrences of ‘might’ that ‘conjure the non-existent’ in the words of Jane:

But wasn’t there going to be a scene now in any case, at the Swan at Bollingford?
All the scenes. All the scenes that never occur, but wait in the wings of possibility. It was perhaps already almost half past one. Birds chorused. Somewhere on the road the other side of Bollingford, Emma Hobday, in her Emmamobile, would already be nearing the place of their rendez-vous . . . .
And at Henley they might have finished the smoked salmon and be anticipating perhaps the duck or the lamb with mint sauce . . . .
All the scenes. To imagine them was only to imagine the possible, even to predict the actual. But it was also to conjure the non-existent.” (54–55)
. . .
All the scenes. All the real ones and the ones in books. And all the ones that were somehow in-between . . . . (131, my emphasis)

17By inserting the ‘non-existent’ into the existent and allowing ‘all the scenes’ to cohabit side by side, Swift thus extends and radicalises the realm of coexistence which Rancière analyses as fundamental in Conrad’s fiction in Le Fil perdu. (‘Il n’y a qu’un épisode’ is, Rancière reminds us, Conrad’s answer to his publisher when he refuses to turn the narrative pauses in Lord Jim into chapters (48)). At the same time, Jane renews Conrad’s adventure of ‘learning to write in a whole new language’, although in her case it is the language in which she was born. This process is inscribed within the text through a constant play that challenges the hegemony of one meaning over another and bares the potential significance or insignificance of ‘all the scenes’ and all the words.

‘If you’ll pardon the pun’ (Mothering Sunday, 87): Democracy at Play

18From the beginning of the novel, Jane appears as a girl who will not leave language alone, dissecting words, questioning their origin or puzzling over their meaning. She also likes to point out vacuity or meaninglessness when she sees it, opting for a resolutely literal approach of language:

‘Well, you have a gorgeous day for it, Jane,’ Mr Niven had said . . . .
‘Yes, sir,’ she’d said and she’d wondered quite what he meant by ‘it’ in her case. (5)

19But she also delights in the non-sensical nature of certain expressions like ‘the shower’ which is what Paul calls his parents, or in the lexical quirks of cook Milly who uses the word orchid when she means orphan. She herself has started not just to learn new words but also to play with them, to make them rhyme or swing: ‘She wasn’t quite sure what “jamboree” meant, though she felt she had read the word somewhere. But “jam” suggested something jolly’ (7).

20The narrative of Jane’s day becomes a feast in every respect (‘Feast your eyes’ is a recurring phrase) and not least a feast of words. The carnivalesque dimension of the text asserts itself through its constant punning which celebrates the body not only through denotation but through a literal imagination that foregrounds the material dimension of the sign. As Jane lays language bare she also stands bare in front of it. The core of the democratic aesthetics of Mothering Sunday involves enjoyment/jouissance not only as the letting loose of the primary principle but, in keeping with the legal use of the term, enjoyment as distinct from property. Jane’s ‘greatest and truest adventure’, her own ‘East’ leads her to become a great gatherer of words, ‘like one of those nest-building birds outside’ (31) but unlike Conrad’s Kurtz, she does not turn into a fetishist collector or a godlike figure. Jane’s story is a story of empowerment which stands at the opposite pole of imperialist conquest. The maid becomes a borrower rather than an owner, or, as Rancière puts it, a ‘guardian’ safeguarding a realm where no one has a claim to ownership. Jane points out that ‘she was lucky to have been born with nothing to her name. With not even a name, in fact. Or the real date of her birth. So, she was not only nameless but ageless’ (90)—‘a clean sheet’: ‘To have no credentials at all. To be given a clean sheet, or rather to be a clean sheet yourself. A nobody. How can you become a somebody without first being a nobody?’ (86). Having no name, Jane will be able to make a name for herself and yet, as she points out, she has retained her ‘real name’, Jane, one of the ‘commonest’ names (91), Jane Fairchild, ‘her given name’, which she adds ‘might as well be a pen name’ (87). Being ‘nobody’, Jane may become everybody, which also means no one in particular.

21A playground for the budding writer, the narrative also becomes like a game where places can be exchanged, where people come and go, occupy the same spots at different moments in time and leave the same marks behind—marks by which they cannot necessarily be told apart: ‘All the stains, all the permutations. A summer house party with twenty-four guests. Oh Lord’ (46). Jane here is mimicking the reaction of the maids having to strip the beds, using their ‘powers of deduction’ and being able ‘to draw conclusions’ (46), up to a point. Together with the general topsy-turviness, it is in this game of permutation that the narrator indulges throughout the text—a game where one face, one body chases another, where one word after another is misused or used instead of another:

All the emissions.
Had her mother been a pregnant maid? Was that the whole story? Had her mother not had a cap to put in? All the omissions. As Milly might have put it. (59, my emphasis)

22At the same time as the cap a maid must put on (her head) is replaced by the cap she puts in or fails to put in, the text blurs the difference between the proper and the improper, the improper often proving surprisingly adequate, as Milly’s idiosyncratic mistreatment of English shows (‘And what if orphans really were called orchids?’ (95)). When it comes to being tricked by language everybody is on a par. In the constant swap of places and switch of letters, the impossibility of tracing the origin of the emissions or omissions that have been left behind becomes the condition of a democratic regime which starts for Rancière with the severance of the written word from the imaginary control of the speaker: a regime of ‘orphaned’ enunciation which has cast off all master, the regime of the ‘mute word’ (‘la parole muette’): ‘[La parole écrite] est le régime d’une énonciation orpheline, d’une parole qui parle toute seule, oublieuse de son origine, insouciante à l’égard de son destinataire.’ (Rancière 1998, 82). The stain on the sheet where the ‘seed’ of the son of the house and the bodily fluids of the maid may merge is no mere detail, no meaningless vulgarity. The bodily trace, an embodiment of that ‘mute word’ that will be noticed by anyone lifting the sheets and that will get everyone talking, is the point where ‘a story [is] beginning’ (11), where a process of dissemination may start.


  • 12 In Ducrot’s words, ‘le postulat selon lequel un énoncé isolé fait entendre une seule voix’ (151).

23Before Mothering Sunday came out, Last Orders was likely to be considered as Swift’s finest democratic achievement: apart from the fact that it is located in the East End, reclaimed for the occasion as the beating, ‘bleedin’ (230) heart of London, its polyphonic structure puts every speaker on a par and foregrounds their monologues as a place where the narrative merely transits. Last Orders presents us with a regime of ‘orphaned enunciation’ not so much because there is no central eye or tyrannical ‘I’ in sight to impose its order on the different monologues, but because these monologues do not truly belong to any of the speakers themselves: words, like the urn, merely circulate from one place to another. With Jane the orphan, Swift invents a different, yet equally convincing, form of narrative democracy. While Mothering Sunday presents itself as a tale of empowerment, it suggests that Jane’s power lies in the fact that she never forgets that she was born with no name, a blank or a ‘clean sheet’ hospitable to various narrative possibilities. Polyphony, one may argue, has been replaced by a single voice. Yet one should remember Oswald Ducrot’s apt comment on Bakhtinian polyphony, which, as he puts it, challenges ‘the assumption that a single utterance makes us hear one voice only’.12 Mothering Sunday intensifies what the Swiftian text has been doing from the start: building itself and growing little by little around some key words, phrases and sentences that foreground the narrative as a text in the making. Swift’s first experiment with the novella and the reduced material it uses increases the possibility of laying bare the play of the text. But the strength of Mothering Sunday lies more particularly in its temporal fabric and in its radical undoing of time and of the moment itself. Swift’s ‘stretching’ exercise extols nothing less than the power of fiction to make life ‘in-finite’ in Rancière’s words. It is remarkable again that this should have been achieved within the ‘limited’ scope of the novella.

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Docherty, Thomas, After Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1996.

Docherty, Thomas, Aesthetic Democracy, Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006.

Ducrot, Oswald, Le Dire et le dit, Paris: Minuit, 1984.

Kakutani, Michiko, ‘Graham Swift’s “Mothering Sunday”, A Haunting Day Forever Relived’, The New York Times April 28, 2016, last accessed at on January 4, 2019.

Rancière, Jacques, La Parole muette, Paris: Hachette, 1998.

Rancière, Jacques, Le Fil perdu, Paris: La Fabrique, 2014.

Rancière, Jacques, Les Bords de la fiction, Paris: Le Seuil, 2017.

Ricoeur, Paul, Temps et Récit 2, Paris: Le Seuil, 1984.

Runcie, James, ‘Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, book review: A tale of life and lust’, The Independent February 11, 2016, last accessed at on January 4, 2019.

Swift, Graham, Waterland, London: Picador, 1983.

Swift, Graham, Last Orders, London: Picador, 1996.

Swift, Graham, The Light of Day, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003.

Swift, Graham, Mothering Sunday, London: Simon & Shuster, 2016.

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1 In the review she wrote for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani described the novel as ‘a kind of feminist Cinderella set at the close of the Downton Abbey era’.

2 ‘Once upon a time’ is one of the key leitmotifs of Waterland: ‘Once upon a time there was a history teacher’s wife called Mary . . . .’ (116), ‘Once upon a time there was a future history teacher’s wife who wore a rust-red schoolgirl’s uniform . . . .’ (122), ‘Once upon a time there was a future history teacher and a future history teacher’s wife [. . ] (126), ‘Once upon a time there was a father who fell in love with his daughter . . . .’ (226).

3 One may remember the second paragraph of Waterland: ‘Fairy-tale words; fairy-tale advice. But we lived in a fairy-tale place’ (1).

4 In The Light of Day, George experiments with words and is told by Sarah he’s ‘got something’ (132). George may be considered as a budding writer at best: the nature of what he describes as ‘more than just letters’ (131) is not entirely clear. Yet the private eye heralds Swift’s choice of an unpredictable, and, more importantly, humble double for the writer.

5 ‘Je localiserai la politique de la fiction non du côté de ce qu’elle représente, mais du côté de ce qu’elle opère.’ (Rancière 2014, 12). Translations of Rancière are all mine in this paper.

6 ‘Le moment quelconque’ is the title of one of the chapters in Les Bords de la fiction.

7 Ricœur draws from Nietzsche’s’monumental history’ his notion of ‘monumental time’ to comment on Mrs Dalloway: ‘Cette histoire monumentale, à son tour secrète ce que j’oserai appeler un temps monumental, dont le temps chronologique n’est que l’expression audible; de ce temps monumental relèvent les figures d’Autorité et de Pouvoir qui constituent le contre-pôle du temps vif, respectivement vécu par Clarissa et par Septimus . . . .’ (200).

8 Docherty insists on the importance of what he calls ‘hypocrisy’ in Narrative Democracy. He quotes Bennington arguing that ‘there is communication only when there is a moment, however minimal, of non-understanding, of stupidity with respect to what is said’ (29). He also takes his cue from Lyotard saying that ‘there is always a violence inscribed in a claim to have comprehended the other’ (29).

9 A word often used by Rancière. In Le Fil perdu he talks about the ‘deceitful tyranny of storytelling’ (‘la tyrannie mensongère des histoires’ 55), or ‘the tyranny of human ends’ (la ‘tyrannie des fins humaines’ (58)).

10 In Narrative Democracy, Docherty borrows from Derrida the notion of ‘absolute hospitality’ and describes it as fundamental to the act of reading (or writing, we might add). ‘Hospitality is culture itself’ (Docherty 2006, 38).

11 Docherty elaborates on the neo-Aristotelian distinction between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’: ‘The “punctual” is not only “to the point”, but it is also “on time” or “timely”; the “eventual” is, on the contrary, “untimely”, somehow out of its proper instant or moment. But the eventual also therefore refuses to be assigned a simple straightforward or chronological allotment’ (Docherty 1996, 9).

12 In Ducrot’s words, ‘le postulat selon lequel un énoncé isolé fait entendre une seule voix’ (151).

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Référence électronique

Pascale Tollance, « ‘The magical, the perfect politics of nakedness’: Wandering Bare across Social and Narrative Boundaries in Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 57 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 15 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Pascale Tollance

Pascale Tollance is Professor of English at Université Lumière—Lyon 2 (France). She has written extensively on British-Canadian author Malcolm Lowry, as well as on a number of British contemporary writers. She is the author of several articles on Graham Swift and of a book (Graham Swift. La Scène de la voix. Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2011) which focuses on the staging of gaze and voice in Swift’s fiction. She is co-editor of the online journal L’Atelier and is on the editorial board of the online journal Polysèmes and has coordinated a number of volumes for both journals. Her field of research includes postcolonial literatures.

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