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New play by BAFTA nominated screenwriter tells stories of two inspiring women

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Author: Thomas Hadfield, Posted: Wednesday, 27th February 2019, 09:00

Clara von Holst Clara von Holst

The stories of Clara von Holst and Isabella Beeton will be explored in ‘A Woman’s Life’, a play commissioned by the Holst Birthplace Museum and written by BAFTA nominated playwright Carolyn S. Jones.

The play will be performed at Christ Church Harwood Hall in Cheltenham on Saturday 23rd March. Directed by Marianne Gaston, it features Emma Wilkes as Clara von Holst and Emmeline Braefield as Isabella Beeton.

Carolyn started writing for the stage around ten years ago and her first play, ‘Sanctuary’ was shortlisted for the Bruntwood/Royal Exchange theatre award.

Her first radio play was broadcast on Radio 4 while she was living in London.

“It felt like a breakthrough moment at the time,” she said.

“Then I realised that in writing you have to keep proving yourself and probably it wasn’t the most sensible choice of career!”

Since then, Carolyn has written for radio, TV and theatre, and her credits include the TV series ‘The Bill’, the long running BBC Radio 4 series ‘The Archers’, and medical dramas such as ‘Casualty’ and ‘Doctors’.

Carolyn also received a BAFTA nomination for her Victorian children’s drama ‘Shadowplay’, and she explained how the idea for this latest play came about.

She said: “In 2016, I was asked by the Holst Birthplace Museum if I’d be interested in writing some monologues so that visitors exploring the rooms could hear the voices of the von Holst family.

“It was Clara’s voice I seemed to hear when I began to write and her presence which became strongest. ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ was on the dresser in the kitchen and this became the inspiration for a new draft of the play.

“While the two women never met in real life,” Carolyn continued, “Mrs Beeton’s book had a place in Clara’s kitchen and I imagined her becoming a forceful presence there. At first Mrs Beeton was an off-stage voice – then she bustled in, demanding to be seen as well as heard and becomes the companion Clara so desperately needs.”

Carolyn says she’d absorbed many of the facts about Clara’s life from her time volunteering at the Holst Museum, but found it fascinating to dig deeper to discover what shaped her life.

“While Clara’s biography is on the Holst Museum website, details about her seem scant. If you trawl the internet you’re often taken instantly to her famous son (Gustav Holst).

“In fact, she was a talented musician in her own right but marriage to her teacher, Adolph von Holst – a leading figure on the Cheltenham music scene – and the birth of two children put paid to any aspirations.

“Mrs Beeton was a particular revelation as the image of her as a rather bossy, mob-capped matron was ingrained. In fact, she had some very contemporary ideas about a woman’s role and luckily Sam Beeton (her husband) shared them and treated her as an equal.”

Carolyn comments that while Isabella and Clara are separated by time, there seemed to be a common thread running through their lives.

She added: “I think their stories reflect the quiet tragedies of so many women, whose talents never found an outlet and whose dreams were stifled by marriage.

“Surviving the dangerous lottery of childbirth was a huge achievement in itself. Clara seemed to me like the invisible woman in the von Holst household while Isabella, famous in her own lifetime, subsequently seemed to become the victim of her own success.

“In ‘A Woman’s Life’ I hope that as they share their experiences at Clara’s kitchen table, both women finally discover their voice.”

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