Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, adapted by Betty Davies

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BBC Radio 7, 21-28 February 2011
The parallel tale of two women: great friends Shirley (Moir Leslie) and Caroline (Helena Breck). Shirley comes into money while Charlotte remains of modest means as they seek their fortunes in a world dominated by conservatism. Women are expected to marry for money and/or prospects, while respecting their (male) elders, even if the elders' views are dominated by self-interest.
This domestic drama unfolds against the backdrop of a world in turmoil: the Napoleonic Wars rage, involving young men in violent and bloody conflict. The Luddite riots signal the working class's desire to break free of feudalism and assert their rights as free citizens. While the riots are in a sense justified, they involve innocent people who become the victims of motiveless attacks - a pertinent point in the light of recent social unrest in Britain's towns and cities.
Initially it seemed as if Kay Patrick's production would make little vocal distinction between the two women. As the six parts unfolded, however, Shirley emerged as a woman of unquenchable spirit who resisted her guardian Mr. Simpson's (Rene Kupinski's) exhortations to find a suitable partner, even if it required her to indulge in unladylike language (unladylike in the early nineteenth century, that is). Her verbal debats with her guardian were one of the highlights of the production, emphasizing the capacity of women - even those living in patriarchal societies - to resist peer pressure.
Yet there remained a basic tension at the heart of the adaptation between Shirley's bid for self-determination and the position maintained by the narrator (Valerie Windsor), who commented on the characters' behaviour while guiding the listeners' responses, despite protesting at the end of the adaptation that she was looking for no particular moral to the tale. It seemed that Shirley had outgrown the rather predictable story; the narrator understood this at the end, and hence relinquished her omniscient position.
The adaptation revealed other tensions - for example, between the domestic drama involving Shirley and Charlotte, and the political events unfolding inside and outside the country. Part one began with two workers (Nigel Callibone, Mike Barrett) resolving to defend their rights; throughout the ensuing action we heard about some of their sufferings, and how they affected other people's lives - for example Robert Moore (Neil Capel), who was set upon for no apparent reason.
However it seemed as if these political events kept being consigned to the background so as to let the domestic drama unfold. Perhaps this represented a failure of nerve on adapter Davies's part, as she refrained from showing how external events impinged upon the protagonists' personalities. Rather she concentrated on the social minutiae that influenced the way in which young ladies of quality and their male paramours were expected to behave.
This adaptation was undoubtedly a radio period-piece; the product of an era when Radio 4 classic serials unfolded at leisurely pace over six, eight, twelve or even fifteen parts, paying scrupulous attention to character development and interaction. I enjoyed it thoroughly - particularly the musical-box theme tune that opened and closed each episode, implying that the characters were toys in the author's hands. Leslie's Shirley deserved our congratulation as she broke free of such shackles and set herself up as personality in her own right.