It’s nine months later. At 10:30 p.m., Arthur is sitting in his favorite armchair, reading about the case—it’s headline news. Ronnie and Grace are listening; Ronnie is struggling to stay awake, while Grace is darning socks.
This act opens similar to the previous, with characters reading about the case in the news. This time though, it’s not just in the letters pages—the case is on the front page. The story’s attention has increased and the media pressure intensified. Neither Grace nor Ronnie are really listening to Arthur’s reading, however; they’re becoming numb to the case as it’s been going on a long time.
The paper gives an account of an exchange in the U.K. parliament. It relays a fierce debate, in which the First Lord defends the position of the Admiralty to jeers and interruptions from the opposition. Arthur says happily, “it looks as if the First Lord’s having rather a rough passage.” Ronnie doesn’t reply, so Arthur wakes him up by sarcastically shouting that he hopes his reading isn’t keeping him awake.
Arthur clearly wants Ronnie to be as interested in the case as he is. After all, it’s being fought on his behalf. Arthur’s sarcasm lets Ronnie know that he actually doesn’t want him to sleep when he’s reading out news about the case.
Grace thinks her “poor sleepy little lamb,” Ronnie, should go to bed. But Arthur says that Ronnie is the subject of “violent and heated debate” and that he ought to be awake to hear what’s gong on.
A divide is starting to open up between Arthur and Grace. He thinks Ronnie ought to know exactly what’s happening with the case, but Grace’s motherly instincts means she wants to look after Ronnie.
Arthur shouts at Ronnie again. Ronnie says he was listening, just with his eyes closed. Arthur continues reading: the First Lord admits he “was as moved as any honourable Member opposite by [Sir Robert’s] use of the words ‘Let Right be done’ … nevertheless, the matter is not nearly as simple as he appears to imagine.” The First Lord argues that allowing a Ronnie, who is technically a servant of the Crown, to then sue the Crown would set a dangerous precedent. Ronnie falls asleep once more, irritating Arthur.
The case has gained such notoriety that it has become a national issue. What Arthur is reading refers to the day’s debate in U.K. parliament. The First Lord, representing the Crown (and the state), thinks that allowing Ronnie to sue the Crown—by using the Petition of Right—is a dangerous precedent because Ronnie as a trainee naval officer was essentially a servant of the Crown. His argument is that it would be undermining for the country constitutionally to have one part of the Crown suing the other. Ronnie still can’t stay awake, suggesting perhaps he’s been listening to the same arguments for a long time.
Violet comes in, informing Arthur that there are three reporters waiting in the hall. He instructs her to dismiss them as he already gave a statement the day before. Violet asks if she should make sandwiches for Catherine, as she has missed dinner. She leaves the room.
Whereas in Act 2 Arthur was keen to talk to the press, now he has more attention than he needs. It will be revealed that Catherine is at parliament, watching the debate about “the Winslow boy,” further reflecting her interest in and commitment to politics.
Grace puts a rug over Ronnie. Arthur says to her that he thinks this is a good time for her to talk to Violet about relieving her of her duties. He says delaying it only adds to Grace’s worries—she asks him bitterly what he knows her worries.
The money woes are getting worse. The Winslows can no longer afford to keep Violet on, though they are yet to inform her, and the tension between Arthur and Grace is getting worse. She doesn’t share his commitment to the case and believes that he is incapable of seeing things from her perspective.
Arthur says it’s best they let Violet go and explain that it’s too expensive to keep her. Grace is hesitant because Violet was never properly trained as a maid, so even with a good reference might find it hard to find anything else.
Grace doesn’t want to let Violet go because she knows Violet will suffer and find it difficult to get new employment. But, for Arthur, it’s a necessary sacrifice.
In reference to the financial figures, Arthur says “facts are brutal things.” Grace says, a little hysterically, that she doesn’t know what facts are anymore. Arthur says that it’s a fact that they are living on half the income they were the previous year. Grace says she’s not talking about facts—but about having “a happy home and peace and quiet and an ordinary respectable life, and some sort of future for us and our children.” She accuses Arthur of sacrificing all of that for the case, gesturing to the newspaper headline.
This loosely sets Arthur up as beholden to facts in opposition to Grace’s more emotional way of seeing the world (though the dividing lines are not neat and simple). It’s also the first real outburst of feeling from Grace, who confesses that she doesn’t see how sacrificing their way of life can possibly be worth headlines in a newspaper.
Arthur says he is going to publish Ronnie’s innocence before the world, and for that he is “not prepared to way the cost.” Grace believes the cost may be out of proportion, but that doesn’t concern Arthur: “An injustice has been done. I am going to set it right, and here is no sacrifice in the world I am not prepared to make.”
Arthur believes that the cause he is fighting for is nothing less than “truth” and “justice.” Grace, meanwhile, is arguing that he isn’t being pragmatic and sensitive to the rest of the family’s needs. Arthur’s insistence to right the wrong in front of the “world” shows that it’s important to him that not only is Ronnie cleared of the charge but also that “the world” knows he is innocent.
Grace reacts angrily, pointing out that Ronnie doesn’t even care about the case—he’s happy at his new school. No one need ever have known about his expulsion, she says. She says he’ll forever be known as the “Winslow boy” who stole the postal order. “The boy who didn’t steal that postal order,” interjects Arthur. Grace says it makes no difference when millions of people are talking and gossiping about him.
Grace is saying that, if Ronnie doesn’t care about winning, why should anyone else? Furthermore, she is concerned that he will be forever tagged as the “Winslow boy”—he won’t have his own identity as Ronnie but will always be abstracted as someone famous for one particular event. With that in mind, she argues, it doesn’t even matter if Ronnie is cleared: he is never going to not be “the Winslow Boy.”
Grace continues her attack on Arthur. She says that Ronnie won’t thank him for the case when he’s older, and that Arthur isn’t being honest with himself about the deterioration of his health due to the stress. She says she’s asked him and Catherine a hundred times why it’s worth destroying the family. “For justice,” replies Arthur. She asks if it isn’t just “pride,” self-importance,” and “stubbornness.”
Arthur thinks that even his own health is worth sacrificing for the good of “justice.” Grace is suspicious of his motivations, thinking that he’s afraid to back down and is more concerned with how he is perceived than with any pious notions of justice. Grace also signals that Catherine is the only one really on Arthur’s side.
Grace breaks down, and Arthur puts his arm around her. Ronnie wakes up a little, asking what the matter is. Arthur says to Ronnie that his mother is a little upset; Ronnie goes back to sleep.
Ronnie is oblivious to the family drama playing out on his behalf. It shows how there’s definitely some truth in what Grace was saying—the “Winslow boy” is almost someone else, an abstraction.
Violet comes in with sandwiches and a new letter for Arthur. He asks her how long she’s been with the family (twenty-four years). She tells him she read in the Evening News an editorial that complained the case was a waste of the Government’s time. She says sometimes she has to laugh that it’s all about “Master Ronnie.”
Clearly if Violet does have to be dismissed from her duties as housemaid it will be an impactful decision for the family. She’s seen the children grow up and is evidently an important part of the daily life of the household. Her quip about Ronnie reinforces the above idea that the case has become almost completely removed from the little boy asleep on the sofa.
Violet leaves, greeting Catherine who has just come back from watching the parliamentary debate. She updates Arthur on the proceedings, saying it still looks unlikely that they will allow a fair trial to take place—it depends on how the politicians vote.
Catherine, unlike Grace, is still very invested in the case. She has been watching it unfold live and knows the full extent of its workings. She is an important ally for Arthur—without her, he’d be completely alone in his commitment to pursuing the case.
Arthur asks Catherine if Sir Robert protested when the First Lord refused them their trial. She tells him that Sir Robert listened to First Lord’s speech with his hat over his eyes, before suddenly getting up, throwing all of his papers on the floor and storming out. She said it was a very effective gesture but doubts its sincerity.
Sir Robert knows how to use drama to good effect for his work (e.g. the interrogation of Ronnie in the previous Act). He is aware of the importance of the media and therefore adjusts his actions according how he thinks he can best manipulate the way that proceedings are written up.
Catherine admits that Sir Robert has done better than she expected, though she still doubts his motivations. She thinks he’s doing it for publicity and because the case is a useful tool to attack the government. They agree it is lucky that he chose to do so; Catherine says Sir Robert is “a fish, a hard, cold-blooded, supercilious, sneering fish.” At that very moment, Violet enters announcing the arrival of Sir Robert—Catherine almost chokes on her sandwich. Sir Robert assists her with a pat on the back.
Catherine’s attitude to Sir Robert hasn’t completely changed. She still thinks the same about him as earlier, but now admits that he is at least doing a good job with the case. She thinks he has no emotional life—that’s why she describes him as a non-human creature. Sir Robert’s timely arrival is meant to emphasize the quality he has to appear almost beyond human.
Sir Robert has come to update Arthur on the day’s events. Catherine asks if he had noticed she was there; he says with such “a charming hat” it was hard not to. Catherine wants to know about Sir Robert’s previous interrogation of Ronnie—how he decided Ronnie was innocent. Sir Robert says that he if Ronnie was guilty he would have taken him up on his suggestion that the postal order was stolen “for fun,” and that Ronnie made too many bad-sounding admissions to have been telling a lie. Catherine is impressed by his technique.
Catherine and Sir Robert’s relationship starts to become a bit less guarded. Catherine has come to respect his abilities—if not his motivations—and wants to know about his methods. He clearly has an attraction to her, at least partly based on her physical appearance. This also gives the reader/viewer their own evidence with which to decide Ronnie’s guilt or innocence.
Arthur reads the letter brought in by Violet, while Catherine and Sir Robert continue chatting. When he has finished, Arthur says he thinks they should drop the case. Catherine grabs the letter from Arthur, and Sir Robert tells him that to quit now would be “insane.” He insists that whatever the contents of the letter, they must fight on.
The letter contains information that Arthur believes is pivotal. Arthur has been willing to sacrifice everything it seems, including his own health, but now is changing his mind. Sir Robert is adamant that they should continue because he wants “Right” to be done.
Catherine finishes the letter too, and tells Sir Robert that, contrary to what her father says, the case will go on. The letter is from John’s father, Colonel Watherstone. It says that the “Winslow” name has become a “nation-wide laughing-stock,” and that he can no longer allow John to marry Catherine unless the case is dropped.
The Colonel fears the embarrassment that John’s marriage to Catherine will bring to his family. He is from the military establishment, part of the Crown, and so naturally sides more with the naval college than with Ronnie. Catherine, however, maintains her principled commitment to the case.
Arthur reiterates that they should end the case, but Sir Robert says that Catherine is clearly willing to take the risk. Catherine has a cigarette, looking scared. Sir Robert asks for one too. Sir Robert apologizes for his tone to Arthur—he’s had a long day.
Sir Robert doesn’t usually suffer lapses in his decorum, but it seems he really is invested in the case and can’t stand the thought of it ending now. Catherine and Sir Robert smoking together portrays them as getting closer in mindset.
Sir Robert tells Catherine again how much he likes her hat. But, he adds, “it seems decidedly wrong to me that a lady of your political persuasion should be allowed to adorn herself with such a very feminine allurement.” She tells him she’s not a militant, just an organizer for the Woman’s Suffrage Association.
Violet comes to the door, saying that John has arrived asking to speak privately with Catherine. Arthur and Sir Robert go to the dining room to let the other two speak. John looks depressed and anxious.
Once again characters retreat to the dining room to allow a sensitive conversation to take place. This time it’s Catherine and John—the latter is clearly worried about the implications of his father’s letter.
John brings up the letter from his father. Catherine says she’s read it, but John wants to know what Arthur’s response will be. She says he’ll most likely ignore it—“isn’t that the best answer to blackmail?” John says he tried to get his dad not to send it.
John’s attitude to his father is rather feeble, suggesting he is fearful of the repercussions of disobeying him.
Catherine says that they can marry without his father’s approval, even if they won’t have much money. John clearly doesn’t think so: “Unlike you I have a practical mind, Kate. I’m sorry.” He tells her she should think very carefully before taking the next step.
John, too afraid to stand up to his father, is making clear the terms of the ultimatum. On top of that, he shows that deep down he considers himself to be superior to Catherine simply by virtue of his being a man.
John says surely the case has gone far enough—it’s had two inquiries, the Petition of Right case, and an appeal. Now it’s even getting the parliament into a “frenzy.” John points at Ronnie, still asleep, and says that he won’t mind if they stop.
John wants Catherine to be pragmatic, not principled. He thinks similarly to Grace: the case isn’t worth fighting anymore. He uses Ronnie as supporting evidence, because Ronnie is clearly not that bothered about the case. That said, he’s also a child.
Catherine says she’s not even sure if Ronnie did or didn’t do it. She’s fighting the case because the government has “ignored a fundamental human right” in not giving him a fair trial. John argues that, though her words are “noble,” there are greater things to worry about: the threat of war in Europe, miners’ strikes, the chance of civil war in Ireland. Can’t she see that it’s a bit out of proportion, he asks.
This outlines the principle behind Catherine’s stubborn refusal to drop the case. She’s not even sure if Ronnie’s innocent—her fight is with the system more generally. She feels Ronnie was denied a fair trial, and that this should be a universal right. The case for Ronnie, then, becomes a kind of proxy for her wider wish to see universal rights (with voting, for example) extended to women. John’s comments remind the reader/viewer of the looming threat of war, asking the question of whether Ronnie’s case is worth attention given the darkness that is imminent in Europe.
Catherine says that if the parliament is ever too busy to discuss a case like Ronnie’s it will be to the detriment of the country as a whole. John complains that people are mocking him for planning to marry a Winslow. Catherine laughs it off—she says they’re even singing about it in one of London’s music halls.
Catherine’s point is that parliament is precisely the place where universal rights have to be fought for. If it’s too busy to do that then something fundamental to society will have been lost. John again demonstrates his lack of bravery; essentially, he’s embarrassed to be associated with the Winslow name. Catherine couldn’t care less; her principles are far too important to her.
Catherine asks John if he actually wants to marry her. He says he’s never wavered before, but she thinks he is now. She asks whether, assuming the case is dropped, John’s father will still grant his allowance. She apologizes, saying that she loves him and that she wants to be his wife. He kisses her and says they shouldn’t let something “stupid and trivial” come between them.
The couple make peace, but it feels highly precarious. Part of Catherine definitely does want to be John’s wife, but it’s not the most important thing in the world to her. She briefly looks at the option of dropping the case. “Stupid and trivial” is meant to clear the tension in the air, but it also hints at John’s attitude towards the case.
The phone rings. Catherine answers it and then shouts to Sir Robert that it’s for him. He comes out of dining room and apologizes for interrupting. He helps himself to a sandwich and goes to the phone.
The situation is extremely fluid, with new information coming through all the time. Sir Robert’s eating a sandwich is the first time the reader/viewer sees him do an action that isn’t part of his “super-barrister” performance.
Arthur appears in the doorway, wanting to know what the phone call was about. Sir Robert tells him that one of his fellow barristers apparently gave a scathing attack on the government at parliament. It was so effective that it turned many of the members against the First Lord. Accordingly, the First Lord has just granted the Petition of Right, meaning the Winslows can finally take the course to court.
While the characters have been debating the case at home, the argument was raging on in parliament. It appears that Sir Robert’s colleague has won over the majority of the parliament, forcing the First Lord to give the Winslows the express permission to sue the Crown (the state).
Sir Robert asks whether in light of the new information Arthur still wants to cease action. Arthur says it’s up to Catherine. Without hesitation she says to Sir Robert that he doesn’t even need her instructions—they’re already on the Petition of Right: “Let Right be done.” Visibly angry, John storms out. Sir Robert says, ”well, then—we must see that it is.”
John thought he had been weakening Catherine’s commitment to the case, but he was badly mistaken. He’s angry at her stubbornness. Sir Robert, Arthur, and Catherine are now strongly grouped around the idea of “letting right be done”—even if it’s difficult to pin down exactly what that means. But it does, more widely, show that for all three the case is about more than Ronnie. Their principles may not be exactly the same, and there may be elements of stubbornness or self-interest, but the three characters are resolutely committed to carrying on.