Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, dramatized by Rachel Joyce

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Shirley on BBC Radio 4 Extra

BBC Radio 4, 10-21 March 2014, BBC Radio 4 Extra, 15-22 March 2014
Tracey Neale's production offered a interesting contrast to the 6-part Radio 4 production, dramatized by Betty Davies and broadcast in the late Eighties.
In that production, the historical background of the Napoleonic Wars served as a framework for a coming-of-age drama in which Shirley and Caroline moved from innocence to experience.  Sometimes these experiences were painful, but they helped both young women become more aware of the world, at a time when they were expected to stay at home and assume a subservient role to their male counterparts.
In Neale's production, considerable emphasis was placed on the relationship between Charlotte Bronte (Lesley Sharp) and the characters she depicted.  She insisted that the story she was telling was not a romance; but how much trust were we to place in her judgment, when we kept hearing the slow movement from Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto (most famously associated with David Lean's Brief Encounter) in the background?  As the action unfolded, we gradually understood how the production worked: while Robert Moore (Joseph Kloska) undoubtedly functioned as an object of love for Caroline (Joanne Froggatt), Bronte was determined to foreground the social context of the action.  Shirley takes place at a time of exceptional political and social turmoil - in which no one (not even Caroline) emerge unscathed.  Both she and Shirley witness the riot at the gates of Moore's mill, when several workers are injured and Moore's future is put in considerable danger; the experience proves so traumatic that Caroline - in particular - understands the necessity of caring for her fellow human beings rather than indulging in the familiar ladylike pursuits of being a governess.
As the action unfolded, we understood that Neale's production was particularly interested in the conception of "womanhood," and how it was subject to considerable scrutiny during the Napoleonic Period.  Whereas the two central characters' destinies were in the hands of the others (especially at the beginning), by the end of this ten-part adaptation they had acquired a considerable degree of self-determination.  Love and marriage were of undoubted importance to then, but they felt they could approach such conceptions on their own terms, rather than submitting themselves to male protection.
This was a tantalizing production that continually forced us to reconsider our established beliefs in femaleness, as well as redefine our relationship between ourselves and the narrator.