From The Writers' Room Featuring Whitehall

Madeleine Robins on writing Whitehall Episode 8: “Ambitions Which Climb Upwards”

Sympathy arises in unexpected ways.

One of my favorite books is Jane Eyre, and one of my favorite lines in it comes when Jane confronts Rochester, who has been playing merry hob with her emotions. “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, that I am soulless and heartless?” The answer, of course, is absolutely not. Rochester doesn’t think she’s any of those things–he loves her (it’s what renders Rochester’s behavior endurable: he alone of everyone in the book sees Jane for who she is, and loves her for it). But Jane cannot help but compare herself to the ideal of the society she lives in: the wealthy, vivid, buxom, vicious Blanche Ingram.

WHITEHALL.EP8_600x960_300dpi_TXTDo you see where I’m going with this? My sympathy is all for Jane, as it is for Catherine of Braganza, another woman who–while neither poor nor obscure–was by the lights of the English court, plain and little. Catherine is unsophisticated, the sheltered daughter of a powerful Queen; it is easy for the English to see her as plain, obscure, little, eclipsed by the quicksilver wit and bright light of Barbara Castlemaine.

Which, from the start, made writing Barbara Castlemaine a challenge for me. Every molecule of my writer’s being initially wanted to write her as Blanche Ingram: careless, cruel, the caricatured opposite of Catherine. Which, the more I read, and the more the writing team discussed her, was simply not true. Barbara is a fighter, and she can be cruel (that stunt when Charles introduces her to Catherine in Episode 3? That’s a nasty bit of work). She’s far more sophisticated, far more political, than Catherine. But she’s also loving, generous–and fighting for her life.  She can’t give Catherine any quarter for fear she’ll lose everything.

When I got past wanting to cast Barbara in the role of The Shallow Beauty it became much easier to sympathize with her, and to write her. She’s still outrageous–it’s part of the role she plays. She’s impulsive in ways that could land her in deep, deep trouble. She uses weapons that are problematical: sex, her children, even Charles’s bastard son Jamie. But when she takes a moment to think, she’s honest, even honorable.

By the time I finished working on Episode 8, as much as I sometimes wanted to seize Barbara and give her a good shake, I’d come round to admiring her. Even liking her. Still Team Catherine, but with a real respect for the Other Woman.

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