BBC Radio 4, 4-8 April 2011
Ada Leverson, a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, wrote six novels, each a classic of a comedy of manners. The first three - Love's Shadow, Tenterhooks, and Love at Second Sight - were published between 1908 and 1916, and reappeared under the title The Little Ottleys in 1962. Martyn Wade's adaptation was broadcast in two series; this was the first of them, directed by Tracey Neale.
To be honest, I'm not sure whether the adaptation was a comedy of manners; it rather resembled a morality-play told by an omniscient narrator (Haydn Gwynne). The story is a familiar one: Edith Ottley (Juliet Aubrey) is devoted to her son Archie and pursues a life of comfortable domesticity until she meets widower Aylmer (Jonathan Firth). The two are immediately attracted to one another, but decide to pursue a Brief Encounter-esque existence of furtive meetings and snatched kisses. Edith's husband Bruce (Bertie Carvel) has no such scruples as he conducts a string of brief affairs, first with the family governess and then with teenage temptress Mavis (Deeivya Meir). Carvel played him as a duffer with a speech defect strongly reminiscent of the late King George VI. Nonetheless Edith shows admirable restraint as she agrees to take him back in spite of his infidelities. Gwynne's narrator was particularly surprised by this decision: surely Edith had a right to a life of her own? Edith's decision made us admire yet feel sorry for her: what else could a middle-aged woman do in early twentieth century Britain, when the divorce laws made separation both financially and emotionally difficult.
Neale underlined the extent to which circumstances ruled the characters' lives - a chance meeting between Edith's friend Cecil (Stuart McLoughlin) and his aging lover Eugenia (Joanna Monro) was immediately interpreted by Cecil's wife Hyacinth (Alex Tregear) as an act of infidelity. Aylmer's meeting with Mavis, as the two of them journeyed in a taxi to the National Gallery, was viewed in similar fashion by Edith, who happened to espy the two of them sharing a taxi. The only way the characters could deal with such occurrences was to stand back a little and not make hasty conclusions. Edith understood this as she forgave Aylmer while insisting that she could never marry him. While Hyacinth and Cecil were reunited, we were not sure whether their future would be happy: Hyacinth still had to learn something of Edith's stoicism.
Each episode in this five-part Woman's Hour Drama was topped and tailed with snatches of melancholy piano music, emphasizing the sadness of women's lives at this time. Marriage was more often than not a physical and emotional prison from which they could seldom escape. All they could hope for was a largely stressless life, interspersed with occasional encounters with the men they really loved.