BBC Radio 4, 16 May 2010
Olive Higgins Prouty’s wartime best-seller is forever associated in the popular imagination with the Bette Davis film of 1942, in which she plays Charlotte Vale, an ugly duckling who has a doomed love-affair with Jerry (Paul Henreid). The film contains memorable cigarette-lighting sequences, signalling the depth of their affair, and ends with the memorable line “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Max Steiner’s lush, award-winning score contains a memorable recurring theme denoting Charlotte’s gradually developing attachment to Jerry.
Perhaps wisely, Andy Jordan chose to preserve the last line in his classic serial production of the novel. However he transformed the tale into a rite-of-passage melodrama in which Charlotte (Sarah Lancashire) gradually discovered her identity. At the beginning she was a timid personality, perpetually locking herself in her room to escape the influence of her dominant mother (Joan Plowright), who at one point described her daughter as “the last of a litter.” In her view Charlotte was not fit to be part of an old-established Boston family with a reputation to sustain; her only suitable role was to act as full-time nursemaid to her mother.
In keeping with early 1940s mores, Jordan showed how Charlotte only discovered herself once she had found a man. Her gradually developing love-affair with Jerry Durrance (Anthony Head) was very reminiscent of Brief Encounter, only this time it was the man, not the woman, who had to go back to his wife. To begin with, the two lovers appeared nervous, almost hesitant in one another’s company; but as they got to know one another, their responses became more relaxed. However Charlotte was still living under a pretence, preferring to call herself Camille (from Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame Aux Camelias), rather than using her real name. She still had some way to go in the process of self-discovery.
Charlotte only found out who she really was while convalescing in the sanatorium, having been consumed by guilt that she had in some way contributed to her mother’s death. This was something of an irony: the sanatorium, like her bedroom at home, was a sanctuary – a place where Charlotte could absolve herself of the responsibility of engaging with the outside world. As luck would have it, however, she befriended Tina, Jerry’s twelve-year-old daughter (Elisha Mansuroglu) who, like Charlotte herself, had suffered at the hands of a dominant mother. Charlotte and Tina gradually developed a close relationship, to such an extent that Charlotte herself now assumed a quasi-maternal role.
Howver Jordan still suggested that Charlotte could still not find herself without some kind of male presence in the background. In this case, it was her friendly psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (John Rowe), who generously permitted her to take Tina home and become her guardian. Charlotte’s happiness was achieved at a price – although she now knew her place in life, she had achieved it at the expense of her love for Jerry. There was no longer any man who could “make her happy.” But Charlotte was prepared to accept this compromise – hence her famous line “Don’t ask for the moon, we have the stars!”
This was a compelling version of the novel, with Lancashire particularly outstanding in the leading role, her voice gradually acquiring authority (while deepening slightly) as she discovered her purpose in life. More importantly, Now Voyager taught us a lot about the fundamentally conservative views of American women in the early 1940s; how their happiness depended very much on how they were viewed by men, and how they were often forced into making either/or choices so as to ensure social respectability. Charlotte might have ended up a happy woman, but perhaps she could have achieved much more in a less restrictive context.