BBC Radio 4, 21 January 2012
Stephen Wakelam dramatized an incident in the novelist Edith
Wharton's (Fenella Woolgar) life; by her mid-40s she was trapped in a sexless marriage to her husband Teddy (Nathan Osgood).
She met Morton (Patrick Baladi) a journalist whose life proved equally problematic, and her life changed completely -
at least for a brief period.
Although Wharton was the principal focus of our attention, the fulcrum of Wakelam's
play was Henry James, a confidante of both Wharton and Morton, who became the catalyst for the two of them to more
spend time with one another. As portrayed by Allan Corduner, he came across as a sympathetic personality, despite the fact
that he himself had no experience of such passionate relationships. He offered his comments to listeners in asides: many of
them were reminiscent of the narrative observations in The Golden Bowl - a novel depicting an equally passionate affair
between the Prince and Charlotte Stant.
Like James, Wharton recounted her relationship with Morton through letters
and observations addressed directly to the listeners. As a successful novelist she could not help but employ this
technique. However the love-affair affected her more deeply than she could ever have anticipated. Fenella Woolgar showed her
experiencing powerful emotions - perhaps for the first time - after two decades of marriage. She admitted that
to date she had lived "a life of unreality." Sadly the affair fizzled out after a brief flourish: in tremulous tones Wharton
admitted that her life would be harder now "for having lived once in the round." The only way she could deal with it
was to suppress her emotions and write Ethan Frome, adopting
a sympathetic yet detached authorial stance similar to that of Henry James.
Director Sally Avens emphasized the depth of Wharton's relationship
through individual sounds - the chink of cutlery, the rattle of a teacup, the pouring of wine from a bottle. As in Laclos'
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the world of early twentieth Europe was one where physical contact and direct
expression of emotion was frowned upon; the lovers employed indirect methods of communicating their feelings for one another.
At the same time Avens used melancholy music - a single cello, a violin, as well
as other strings - to suggest the proximity of pain and pleasure. Although Wharton enjoyed being with Morton, she
probably knew in her heart of hearts that their relationship was doomed. The music was very similar to that used
in Avens' production of Ethan Frome - broadcast earlier in the week in the Woman's Hour Drama slot - to
emphasize the novella's origins in Wharton's own painful experiences.
The play's title - The Jinx Element - was a deliberate pun on a phrase used
by James himself ("the jinks element") in a 1913 letter to Hugh Walpole. James contrasted the "high jinks" - in
other words, fun - that Walpole enjoyed in London, with the "low jinks" that James himself experienced. Stephen
Wakelam suggested that both Wharton and James were "jinxed"; incapable of sustaining long-lasting and passionate relationships. In
spite of their reputation, and their understanding of their characters' personalities, they led unfulfilled existences.
I felt sorry for both of them.