In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower, abridged by Sally Marmion

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In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower, abridged by Sally Marmion. Prod. Justine Willett. Perf. Penny Downie. BBC Radio 4, 16-27 Feb. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 29 March 2015

This Book at Bedtime adaptation gave listeners the chance to hear the latest work of the Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower. Written in 1971, the book had remained unpublished, due to the author's reluctance. In 2013, now in her late eighties, Harrower allowed Michael Heyward of Text, which had been republishing much of her work, to read it. The book finally appeared in the spring of 2014.

Set in Sydney in the immediate post-war era, the novel is concerned with class and opportunity. The main protagonists are both biologists, and the mother in particular is lauded as someone who (unusually for that time) has successfully combined career and child-rearing duties. Russell, their son, has returned home seemingly unaffected by his time as a prisoner of war. ZoŽ, their 17-year-old daughter, has been brought up to believe that she will fulfil her career ambitions without effort. We are also introduced to another brother and sister, Stephen and Anna Quayle, two orphans pursuing a much less privileged lifestyle. Despite their social differences, ZoŽ is attracted as well as challenged by Stephen, the first man ever to judge her.

Mrs. Howard passes away, and ZoŽ returns from Europe, resolving to give up her relationship and marry Stephen instead. Meanwhile Russell has married Lily, his childhood sweetheart, and they have twin daughters. Despite their apparently happy lives, none of the three women enjoy as prosperous a career as Mrs. Howard: ZoŽ devotes herself to making Stephen happy at the expense of her personal welfare; Lily sacrifices her career for Russell's daughters; while Anna finds success as a potter.

The novel takes us back to a world dominated by patriarchal values. As Zoe exclaims towards the end: "What makes men superior is that they don't on the whole stop functioning forever because of another person. They lack this built-in handicap, and are they lucky!" Nonetheless she manages to find some kind of outlet for her energies, even if it is not quite what she expects. Likewise Lily and Anna discover some degree of self-determination.

Penny Downie's colorful performance vividly evoked a world which we might assume has long passed - or has it? In some contexts, women are still highly limited in terms of career and/or personal opportunities. They are only allowed to operate "In Certain Circles," to invoke the novel's title.