Madame de Tremes by Edith Wharton, adapted by John Peacock

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BBC Radio 7, 14 November 2008

Set in early twentieth century France, this story centres on a clash between old and new worlds, as the Comtesse de Tremes (aka Fanny), an expatriate American (Gwen Humble) seeks to extricate herself from a loveless marriage and marry her American suitor John Dunham (Philip Voss) instead. Eventually the French family agree to the divorce – despite the fact it contravenes their Catholic beliefs – but decide to keep Fanny’s son to ensure the family line. In spite of Fanny’s objections, the decision is presented as a fait accompli. Dunham can now marry her but chooses not to do so in order to frustrate Madame de Tremes (Anna Massey) who confidently predicts that the marriage should and would take place.


The story is a straightforward one told many times, of a woman seeking to express her independence yet forced to conform to Old World values. If she rejects them, then she is doomed to live her future as an outcast. Henry James addresses similar issues in The Portrait of a Lady, when Isabel Archer is faced with a loveless marriage to Gilbert Osmond, yet chooses to return to him, despite the fact that she has alternative suitors in Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton. What renders “Madame de Tremes” interesting is the long central dialogue between Dunham and Madame de Tremes, a verbal fencing-match in which each protagonist tries to outwit the other, even though they protest all the while to understand one another’s system of values. By this method Wharton demonstrates that the two worlds can never be reconciled: Americans, as representatives of the New World, are doomed to resemble fish out of water, unable to contemplate life adhering to long-established familial traditions. This Afternoon Play production made for compelling listening, directed by Jane Morgan.