The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Radio 4)

Antonia Quirke is perturbed by a distorted Brontë adaptation.

A ten-part adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (ended 9 December, 10.45am) was marred by the too-shrill characterisation of the heroine, Helen Graham. This abridged-for-radio broad was more like Helen Archer. In the first couple of episodes, she fled from her alcoholic husband, Arthur Huntingdon, and hid out in a Yorkshire mansion attended by adoring Gilbert Markham - whom she put through the wringer. There were moments when the disapproval, the eye-rolling, in the lead actress Hattie Morahan's voice was so intense that you imagined you were in a car insurance advert of the kind where a man is rumbled for not having renewed the third party on the Prius, or that Markham must at the very least be parading with his male equipment out among discarded whisky tumblers - when in fact he was only attempting to give Helen a novel by Walter Scott.

OK, so she was traumatised by her bad marriage . . . and yet when we travelled in flashback to those unhappy days we found a woman who from the get-go seemed all too readily poised to yell: "Have no more wine!" There was a tone in Morahan's voice of someone rather enjoying the war that comes with injudicious long-term attachments. In episode seven, she loosened up for a mo and sat down to a game of chess, but quickly it was back (with indescribable bitterness, as though low into a phone, eyes dark as pansies) to: "He lies on the sofa all day long." When Huntingdon occasionally retaliated, exclaiming, "It's you that drives me to it! You and your uptight piety!" you found yourself punching the air.

It was a catastrophic distortion of Helen, a woman who, in the novel, is so locked in hell that when she notes in her diary "Another year passes" and then "And another year passes" one ought to break out in goosebumps. Where Anne Brontë's Helen confesses, tragically, "I was not really angry: I felt for him all the time, and longed to be reconciled", Radio 4's would insist, "Show me you're repentant and I will try to love you." The whole thing sounded like a sinister pre-Christmas rallying cry for matriarchs nosing out insufficiently deferential husbands and their stocks of booze and cheese. Be warned - Helen Graham has designs on you.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war