BBC Radio 7, 20-22 October 2010
At one level, Cherry Cookson's production could be read as a melodramatic love-story
involving Stephen Smith's (Michael Maloney's) and Henry Knight's (Jeremy Irons') fruitless pursuit of Elfride Swancourt (Janet
Maw). The two of them fall in love with her, and each proposed to marry her; however both of them are frustrated as Elfride
marries Lord Luxelian (Christopher Scott). Elfride enjoys a brief period of bliss, looking after her husband and his
two children, before illness finally claims her at a young age. Stephen and Henry are left to bury their differences, while
relishing the memory of having "known" her.
At another level, Cookson used the text to mount a stinging criticism of a society
in which expectations - whether personal, social or financial - assume more importance than personal feeling. Despite their
claims to the contrary, Henry and Stephen never "knew" Elfride, as they perpetually tried to mould her in their own images.
Stephen saw Elfride as a way of achieving his social ambitions, while Henry needed an amenable partner to satisfy his expectations
in fashionable London society. Both of them were doomed to disappointment, as Elfride stubbornly refused to conform to their
To illuminate this idea, Cookson structured the action as a series of dialogues involving
two or three people, each punctuated by soliloquies from the three protagonists, who communicated their feelings at any given
moment direct to the listeners. This technique transformed the protagonists into figures
reminiscent of the Chorus in Greek tragedy, both commenting on and driving the action forward. However there was one important
difference: whereas the Chorus can be largely trusted as a sound commentator on the dramatic events, we became more
and more aware of how Henry's and Stephen's intepretations were shaped by self-interest; neither of them had the faintest
understanding of Elfride's feelings. They became more and more unreliable in their asides; by the end we felt that they deserved
everything they got.
By contrast Maw's Elfride became more and more self-reliant with every passing reversal.
This enabled her to cope with the verbal assault mounted on her by Henry, who discovered to his cost that she had had previous
love-affairs. In a series of intense dialogues resembling interrogations, with Henry as the insistent questioner and
Elfride the unfortunate victim, he understood that the image of her he had in his mind as the innocent romantic
heroine of a was nothing more than a fiction. Unable to accept the idea of a strong woman, he abandoned the idea of marrying
her. The news came as something of a relief, both to Elfride and to ourselves; we now understood that she could make her own
choices in life, rather than conforming to other men's expectations from her.
At the same time Maw stressed Elfride's sympathetic nature through asides, as she
revealed to listeners (but not to Henry) that she had not wanted to tell him about her previous affairs, for fear of humiliating
him. She understood that Henry's air of arrogance - vividly brought out through Irons' tendency to emphasize harsh-sounding
consonants - was nothing more than an act, designed to help him progress in London society. At heart he was nothing more than
a child, lacking any capacity to empathize with other people's ideas.
Although the ending was undoubtedly sad - with a lonely cello accompanying Henry's
account of Elfride's last days - we felt that Elfride had achieved the kind of self-knowledge in her short life that would
be denied to her male suitors. She had proved beyond doubt that Victorian codes of marriage and social behaviour tended to
imprison rather than empower individuals of both sexes.