In An Inspector Calls, although Edna has only a handful of lines, her frequent presence on stage is a continual reminder of the plight of the working classes: silenced, submissive, and compliant, the family’s servant ensures that the Birlings do not need to sully their hands with menial tasks. Yet, despite her passivity, it is Edna who opens the door to the Inspector and also gives the play its name: “Please, sir, an inspector’s called” she says as she announces Goole’s unexpected arrival. In a play in which doors have such symbolic importance, it is inescapable that it is a member of the working classes who admits the forces of socialism and collective responsibility which will challenge this bulwark of capitalist arrogance. So whilst it cannot be argued that Edna is one of the play’s protagonists, close consideration of her character is essential to our understanding of how Priestley communicates the play’s central message.
We first encounter Edna as she silently clears the table “of the dessert plates and champagne glasses” and then replaces them “with decanter of port, cigar box and cigarettes”. Edna’s position on stage, her skilled movements, and her servant’s outfit mean that the initial tableau emphasises the visual contrast between the manual labour of the working classes and the idleness of the lounging Birlings who, replete after a “very nice” meal, revel in the comfort of their suburban mansion. As Edna places items that she will never have the opportunity to sample, Arthur asks “giving us the port, Edna?”. Whilst this throwaway comment could be easily ignored, on closer inspection it lays the foundations for Priestley’s scathing critique of middle-class entitlement. For example, the pronoun “us” clearly includes the family, but excludes Edna, just as the tone of Birling’s question assumes her absolute compliance to his wishes. Edna’s lack of response signals the marginalisation and voicelessness of the working-classes in the face of this ostentatious display of wealth and arrogance; there is an implicit understanding of what she needs to do to keep her place and continue earning a living.
Yet, despite this inequality in power, there is something about Edna’s presence in the dining room which prompts Birling to feel under pressure; he “clearly relaxes” when she exits. As this change in demeanour coincides with Mrs Birling’s reminder that “you’re not supposed to say such things”, the audience senses a certain level of class anxiety in the presentation of Birling. This is further compounded by the difference between his “rather provincial” speech and the accent of the remainder of the family. One possible explanation for Birling’s slight stress in Edna’s presence is that, for him, she represents his past – and surely being physically close to such a reminder of his new money status would make Birling anxious about his inferiority. Alternatively, the presence of a servant in the room might make the family vulnerable to gossip, which, we soon learn, is a realistic threat to the Birlings’ reputation. Thus, as Priestley employs Edna to highlight the tensions and insecurities which haunt the middle-classes, there is a hint of the power that the working-classes might be able to hold over their employers.
Priestley next presents Edna when the doorbell rings and she enters to announce the Inspector’s arrival, turning on the light as she leaves and thus ushering in an embodiment of socialism at the same time as she symbolically illuminates the Birlings’ flaws. Modern audiences may be struck by the lack of thanks the family give Edna for her efficient service, and may also be frustrated at her uncomplaining compliance. This irritation must surely increase when Eva’s forthright rebellion against her social status is discussed after the Inspector’s arrival. Through the linguistic similarity of their names, Priestley connects these two diligent working-class characters so that he can highlight the contrast between Eva’s refusal to accept her treatment and Edna’s acceptance of it. Whereas Eva vocalised the need for a pay rise for all the female factory workers, Edna addresses the Birlings as “sir” and “ma’am”. Whereas Eva is described as being “restless”, Edna is uncomplaining when Mrs Birling asks her to stay up, even at the end of a long day’s work. Whereas Eva’s name means to be full of life, Edna’s draws attention to her role in providing others with pleasure. Yet, Eva’s fate symbolises the hardships and sexual exploitation Edna would surely be subject to if she were to rebel against the Birling’s treatment of her. Sheila knows this too, at the end of the play: after hearing of how women out of work and without family are misused and abused in their quest for survival, Sheila looks out of the door but doesn’t leave the family home. Ultimately, both Edna and Sheila choose a compromised existence over the dangers of standing up to capitalism.
Therefore, whilst in An Inspector Calls Priestley unquestionably criticises capitalism and reveals the moral corruption and hypocrisy of the middle-classes, it is difficult to see it as a play which presents a realistic hope for the future. And perhaps this is because the play fails to challenge the misogynistic culture in which the exploitation of women is a daily occurrence.