Why does Mr Birling “clearly relax” when Edna leaves the room? (#LivesIntertwined pt. 6)

Edna goes out. They now have all the glasses filled. Birling beams at them and clearly relaxes.

Birling: Well, well – this is very nice. Very nice. Good dinner too, Sybil. Tell cook from me.

Gerald: (Politely) Absolutely first class.

Mrs Birling: (Reproachfully) Arthur, you’re not supposed to say such things

Birling: Oh – come come – I’m treating Gerald like one of the family. And I’m sure he won’t object.

Sheila: (With mocking aggressiveness) Go on, Gerald – just you object!

Gerald: (Smiling) Wouldn’t dream of it. In fact, I insist upon being one of the family now. I’ve been trying long enough, haven’t I? (As she does not reply, with more insistence.) Haven’t I? You know I have.

Mrs Birling: (Smiling) Of course she does.

Sheila: (Half serious, half playful) Yes – except for all last summer, when you never came near me, and I wondered what had happened to you.

Gerald: And I’ve told you – I was awfully busy at the works all that time.

Sheila: (Same tone as before) Yes, that’s what you say.

Mrs Birling: Now, Sheila, don’t tease him. When you’re married you’ll realise that men with important work to do sometimes have to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business. You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had.

Sheila: I don’t believe I will. (Half playful, half serious, to Gerald.) So you be careful.

Gerald: Oh – I will, I will.

An Inspector Calls, Act 1

It’s strange, isn’t it, how Mr Birling “clearly relaxes” only after Edna leaves the room? I don’t think that I’ve ever picked up on it before. It’s the first of several such moments during the play where we’re given the distinct impression that Arthur feels uncomfortable around his staff. There are a couple of reasons why this may be the case.

The most immediate explanation is provided in the stage direction that introduces the scene: being Mrs Birling’s social inferior, it may well be the case that he simply isn’t as used to having a maid as his wife is. As such, he doesn’t really know how to behave around Edna.  This particular thread is picked up again when he tells his wife to “tell cook” that he enjoyed the dinner. Sybil’s response is to admonish her husband: “Arthur, you’re not supposed to say such things”! It appears that Arthur’s particular brand of bonhomie isn’t fitting for somebody of his status. (Can you imagine thanking a member of staff? How frightfully Marxist!)

The cynic in me, though, likes to imagine a deeper, darker reason for Mr Birling’s discomfort… Could his visible relaxation upon Edna’s departure be an early indication of his guilt – conscious or otherwise – over the events involving Eva Smith? Mr Birling’s behaviour here *could* even suggest a more awful and more personal involvement with Eva than the employer/employee relationship that he later discloses to the Inspector.

Consider, for example, how this moment segues neatly into the exchange between Sheila, Gerald and Mrs Birling about “all last summer when [Gerald] never came near [Sheila]”. Gerald contends that he was “awfully busy at work”, but Sheila’s “half serious, half playful” tone suggests that she suspects (or at least fears) that Gerald is lying. She’s right to be suspicious: in Act 2 we learn that Gerald had been seeing Eva Smith (who was going by the name of Daisy Renton) that summer. Mrs Birling, ever one to uphold the status quo, sides with Gerald. “Men with important work to do sometime shave to spend nearly all their time and energy on their business” she tells us, before adding that “You’ll have to get used to that, just as I had”. It isn’t often that we feel sympathy for Sybil, but that last revelation, “just as I had”, is terribly sad in its manifest meaning and its implications. She, too, was left alone while her husband was “awfully busy”, and the implication is that he, like Gerald, may have been seeing other women as well.

Oddly enough I didn’t particularly originally approve when I first saw the (excellent) 2015 BBC adaptation. In that version, Mr Birling’s behaviour towards Eva verges on sexual predation: in one scene, he stares at her through the window of his office; in another he strokes her cheek and offers her a promotion while she stands in uncomfortable silence. At the time I remember feeling that these scenes repeated unnecessarily elements of Eva’s interactions with Eric and Gerald, and suggested that Eva’s fate had more to do with her sex than her class.

Looking at it now, though, I think that the Beeb might have gotten it right. Yes, it would take two viewings of the play as written to make this sordid link between Mr Birling and Gerald, but the pointed connection that Priestley draws between their working lives is unmistakeable. What is more, it casts new light on Eric’s later behaviour by giving us the impression that his abusive relationship with Eva (he rapes her after she initially rejects his advances) is learnt behaviour, and thus part of a longer cycle – or chain – of cruelty. It isn’t hard to imagine that when Mr Birling keeps Eva’s colleagues in employment but fires Eva, he is also responding to rejection with violence. In a play about repeated patterns of societal abuse, Mrs Birling’s warning that “you’ll have to get used to that” seems especially poignant.

So why does Mr Birling relax when Edna leaves the room? It could be because he sees echoes of Eva in Edna and it makes him uncomfortable. We in the audience can certainly spot many similarities between the two (their names are similar, both are silent women, both occupy similar social positions etc) but for Mr Birling Edna’s presence might be an uncomfortable reminder of how he once treated another woman in his employ. Is he worried that the two might have come into contact? Does he ever suspect that word of his behaviour might have spread (Sheila, we recall, worries that the staff in Milwards no longer like her)? Does Edna remind him of the time when his money and power weren’t enough for him to get his own way?

It could be a bit of all the above. Whatever the case, though, line by line the cracks in this household become clearer, as do those in the oppressive hierarchy that it represents.

Cover illustration: “I should like to make my own living”, by William Smedley, 1906. (Source: Cabinet of American Illustration, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.; http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cai.2a14818.)

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