BBC Radio 4, 30 December 2013 - 3 January 2014, BBC Radio 4 Extra,
4 January 2014
It's interesting how radio drama productions tend to overlap with one another in terms of subject-matter. I
recently reviewed 19 Nocturne Boulevard's dramatization of The Yellow Wallpaper, which focused specifically on issues
of female emancipation at a time when patriarchal values constituted the norm of Anglo-American society. Published some
two decades earlier (1873), Margaret Oliphant's novel concentrates on the same issues, albeit from a very different perspective.
In Jonquil Panting's production, the story was narrated by Oliphant herself (Penelope Wilton).
Adopting a clear-eyed yet sympathetic perspective very reminiscent of George Eliot, she recounted a tale of the eponymous
heroine Hester Vernon (Lyndsey Marshal), who is in the unusual position of running a bank in a northern city. Frequently
derided by her fellow-citizens (especially those from the landed gentry or the bourgeoisie) for committing herself to
a working life, she nonetheless fulfils her responsibilities successfully.
In the five fifteen-minute episodes, Hester
is presented with a series of challenges. Sometimes she has to fight off the unwelcome intrusions of male colleagues
- who assume that she is "naturally" unable to run a bank - as well as making good some of the wild speculations practised
by Edward Vernon (Joseph Kloska). On other occasions she is perceived as a suitable marriage partner, who will "willingly"
sacrifice her working life for the security of domesticity. At the end of the adaptation, Hester is faced with an ultimate
choice, which will determine her future life. This is not something she wishes to do, but a combination of circumstances forces
her into making it.
As narrator, Wilton's Oliphant seemed well aware of the struggles Hester had to experience. In a patriarchal
society, no one could really entertain the idea of a strong woman who knew her own mind, and used her abilities
to run a successful business. Although not overtly stated, the production implied that Hester was well
aware of what she was getting into, when she assumed the executive position; and relished the challenges ahead
of her. Like the heroine of The Yellow Wallpaper, she tried to create a space for herself, with Oliphant's
tacit support as narrator.
This was a salutary tale, reminding us of how people have to struggle to maintain their positions
in society, especially when they are not "supposed" to be there (according to the gender conventions of the period).