Crossing the culture from Rachel Thorpe: Call the midwife?


A young woman becomes pregnant. The details of the baby’s conception are local gossip. She goes into labour when she is far from home and her baby boy is born surrounded by poverty and filth. At first, it seems that his life could be under threat. But the simple joy of childbirth means that all of this darkness melts away. Just a glance at the newborn stirs such hope that, for a moment, the true glory of humanity is visible. This is how the Gospels describe the birth of Jesus, but it could equally well be a plot summary for many of the episodes of Call the Midwife.

The very stuff of life

One Born Every Minute meets Eastenders in Call the Midwife, which had been hailed as the most popular BBC drama in ten years. The show is based on a best-selling trilogy of memoirs by Jennifer Worth describing the experience of delivering babies in the 1950s, before readily-available pain-relief or the pill.

The series follows young nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) as she moves to East London to begin work as a midwife. She is exposed to the hardships of life in Poplar as it recovers from the war, living and working at Nonnatus House alongside an order of nuns who provide a good deal of comedy. Jenny also meets another group of feisty women — the pregnant ‘heroines’ of the community — who impress her with their unconquerable spirit, determination and sense of humour.

We are not all mothers, but we are all children, and, as writer Heidi Thomas said: ‘Childbirth […] lies at the very heart of human experience, and it unleashes every emotion we possess. [It] is terrifying and beautiful, and funny and completely undignified’. In the first episode, Jenny Lee calls it, ‘the very stuff of life’, saying, ‘Every child is conceived in love or lust, and born in pain, followed by joy, or by tragedy and anguish’.

The secret of life is love

Handyman Joe Collett tells Jenny: ‘You’ll know the secret of life, my dear, when you know how to love’. The bottom line, it seems, is that if love is strong enough, it can overcome any barriers in its way. There are multiple examples: love that overcomes language, race, age, parental expectations, social conventions and the law. For a show primarily about birth, there’s a fair amount of death, something else that humans all share. Yet, finally, love is shown to triumph even over the grave: ‘Just as a swan’s song is the sweetest of its life, so loss is made endurable by love; and it is love that will echo through eternity’.

Jenny herself finally finds a love for her patients which allows her to overcome her revulsion at their squalid living conditions. In the closing moments of the final episode, an older Jenny says: ‘In the East End I found grace and faith and hope hidden in the darkest corners. I found tenderness in squalor and laughter among filth. I found a purpose and a path and I worked with a passion for the best reason of all — I did it for love.’ Such statements are sentimental and even nostalgic, but they add a beautiful poignancy and personality to the programme. Besides, it’s hard not to get goosebumps when listening to anything read by Vanessa Redgrave.

These moments may tempt us to take the message a little too seriously, for while love is indeed the most powerful force in the universe, human love can never be enough to overcome every barrier and hide every wrong. Jenny’s own secretive romantic storyline is proof that there are moral absolutes and social taboos which exist despite the power of love, and that are better observed.

Counterpoint

Indeed, the nuns provide a necessary counterpoint to all the talk of human love. At one point Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) even scolds Jenny for allowing her affections to dictate her actions too strongly: ‘Don’t you dare say you love her […] love is no excuse’. There is a constant tension: the very people with the best knowledge of childbirth are those who will never experience it for themselves. Some of the sequences of the nuns singing — peaceful, ordered, calm — do appear somehow out of step with the chaotic, noisy, gritty scenes of mothers giving birth in squats and fishmongers.

They are sometimes trivialised, but it is the nuns’ faith that allows them to work as they do, tirelessly, for the good of the community. They treat belief in a higher power not as a barrier to be overcome, but a part of their shared humanity. As Sister Julienne tells Jenny early on: ‘The way you worship is your own affair […] We wear the habits and you wear your uniform. But we are all nurses first and midwives foremost’. The midwives succeed in delivering babies, and drawing a weekly audience of 8.7 million viewers, by valuing what they have in common above their differences.

If the nativity account reminds us of the miracle of Emmanuel — God sharing our humanity — then Call the Midwife reminds us of something which can come as just as much of a revelation in the modern world: it is something that we share with each other, irrespective of anything that divides us.

Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the April 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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