WE’RE quite used to seeing religion in general and Christianity in particular get a bad name on TV, but Channel 4’s new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (C4, Sunday) will bring an extra dimension to the rounding off of Sunday evening in wholesale excoriation of the religion that a few of us will have celebrated that day.
Margaret Atwood’s modern classic, now 32 years old, still has appalling resonance: religious fundamentalism’s providing the excuse for totalitarian regimes is surely a greater reality today than it was at the time of writing. Environmental degradation has caused wholesale human infertility, and the few remaining fertile women are rounded up and forced to act as handmaids, breeding mares for the regime’s elite.
Perhaps the most disturbing scene of all was the moment when the heroine, Offred, first has sexual relations with the commander to whom she has been assigned.
It is all given biblical justification: Rachel giving her maid Leah to Abraham to counter her own barrenness. So the commander’s infertile wife has to consent to the sex — indeed, has to cradle Offred as her husband joylessly attempts to impregnate her. All three main characters were being abused; the most tender and intimate of acts cheapened and coarsened into a loveless coupling, made all the more sordid by the misuse of scripture to excuse what is taking place.
It is this misuse of scripture which we will find most shocking: Atwood’s brilliant warning about where the extremes of American fundamentalism might lead in a time of crisis. It has wider targets, central though that is, than the subjection of women, a reversal of all the gains of women’s liberation. A New Testament wholly subordinated to the punitive and judgemental sections of the Old Testament is, of course, a parody of Christianity; but this timely and necessary drama might redouble our determination to clarify what our faith is truly all about, and how it might change the world for good.
Light relief in comparison with these horrors, Jane Austen: Behind closed doors (BBC2, Saturday) looked back to a time of fairly wholesale female subjection. Lucy Worsley attempted to give a new angle on Austen, by approaching her through the medium of the houses and buildings in which she lived. Of course, as a genteel daughter and spinster, she did not choose them autonomously: they were, rather, what other people (known as men) decided and chose for her.
It would be hard to think of a life’s journey better in synchrony with the aspiration of many readers of this journal than one leading from parsonage to cathedral. The black irony is that Jane’s most prestigious address was that of her grave in Winchester’s south transept: before that, her life had been largely a gentle decline from the bustling, overcrowded, but intellectually stimulating initial 25 years in Steventon Rectory.