What Love Can Overcome: Life and loss in ‘Call the Midwife’

ON CALL. Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), Patsy (Emerald Fennell) and Sister Winifred (Victoria Yeates)

Surfing through today’s popular television series—“Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Walking Dead,” “Sons of Anarchy”—one is met with a litany of ridiculously masculine men. It is as if the goal of every critically acclaimed series is to make Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer look like wimps. Call the Midwife is a welcome deviation from this trend. Now in its fourth season on PBS, “Call the Midwife” is first and foremost a series about women. The majority of its scenes are of women with other women, around dining tables, in a prenatal clinic, at prayer and at dances. And, most crucial to this series, around beds where women give birth.

“Call the Midwife” centers on Nonnatus House, a community of Anglican nuns who serve the women of Poplar—a working-class neighborhood of London’s East End in the 1950s—as nurses and midwives. Assisting them are four young women who are not religious but who are in residency, including Jenny, the fictional counterpart of Jennifer Worth, upon whose bestselling memoir the series is based.

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Nonnatus House functions as a small community within a larger community. The viewer comes to know the nuns, nurses and the people of Poplar through the stories of the area’s many expectant mothers. Each episode presents a host of challenges—poverty, single motherhood, breech births, birth defects, infant and maternal mortality, large families with many children, strained marriages, spousal abuse, venereal disease, prostitution—often evoking richer meanings through their juxtaposition. Pregnancy and childbirth are not glamorized but dealt with in realistic, often clinical detail. The gritty depiction of pain sets “Midwife” apart from many of today’s often brutal entertainments, which for all their violence rarely portray physical pain realistically.

The range of roles for women in “Call the Midwife” is also noteworthy. Not only are the female characters represented by women of all ages, but they represent a variety of personalities, physiques and emotional or moral makeups. And each of these characters is accorded dignity, even those who are essentially comic figures.

Like the nurses, the nuns combine the serious and the comic and are presented with care and warmth. Religious life is presented seriously and humbly, not as an elite calling but as a different, beautiful way of living out God’s love in the world. The nuns are shown in prayer, sometimes with the unbelieving Jenny looking on, in such a way that the viewer, like Jenny, wishes to be with them. In a scene of grief, when one of Jenny’s fellow nurses holds in her arms the dead baby of a distraught mother and bitter father, not knowing what to say or do, Sister Julienne steps forward to say a prayer that brings, if not consolation, then at least a temporary haven.

But the presentation of the nuns is never unrealistically benign. There are tensions and animosities—what one nurse calls the “war of wimples”—just as there are in any community of human beings.

Even less idyllic is the larger community of Poplar. Pettiness, meanness, prejudice—all can be found among the women who come to the prenatal clinic. Many women face domestic abuse. Fathers are sometimes loving, but not always. Though in some episodes men are the villains, “Call the Midwife” does not go out of its way to make this so.

Contrast creates dismay in one episode that features a woman on an abortionist’s table. The tableau is the same as the scenes of delivery—a pregnant woman on her back, two women tending to her—but the instruments and the intent are so different, destroying life rather than enabling it, that the visceral horror of the scene goes even deeper than the physical suffering visited upon the desperate woman. The husband of the woman undergoing the abortion had counseled against it, and the care of their children falls to him when the abortion is botched.

When in another episode a baby boy is born with deformities, it is the mother who turns her back on the child, while the father looks for some way to provide for him. And the three recurring males in the series are positive characters: a bobby who represents the benign face of the law and is a suitor of one of the nurses; the convent’s handyman, a comic character who nevertheless lends support to the work of the house; and a world-weary, cigarette-smoking doctor who attends to medical emergencies beyond the training of the nuns and nurses and who advocates to the powers that be on behalf of the Poplar poor.

Enabling life in even the most difficult circumstances is the central theme of “Midwife.” The circumstances of Poplar are dire, and the outcomes are not always happy. As Dr. Turner agonizes over the paperwork for a crib death, one of the nuns asks him if there is anything she can get him. “Your faith,” he replies. “It’s at times like this I wish I had one.” The nun responds, “It’s at times like this I wish it made a difference.”

What the secular and religious worlds share, though, is love. “We must see what love can do,” Sister Julienne tells Jenny in the face of a case that appears hopeless. Episode after episode, “Call the Midwife” is a study of what love can overcome and achieve. The series itself seems a labor of love, from the detail of the sets and costumes to the obvious care that goes into the sharp writing. The acting is uniformly superb, and the cinematography always excellent, becoming near-miraculous in the delivery scenes, where the emergence of the newborns is so convincingly rendered that the viewer cannot help but wonder how it is done.

In fact, the thoughtful images of “Call the Midwife” carry the series’ richest meanings. At the opening of the first season’s Christmas special, Jenny is briefly shown washing the figurine of the baby Jesus that is to be part of the Nonnatus House crèche. The figurine is life-size, evoking not just the infant Christ but all the babies we see Jenny and her associates bring forth from the wombs of their mothers. A more sustained image—repeated in every episode so as to become the central image of the series—is that of the midwives, heads cocked, listening at one end of a wooden pinard horn to the heartbeat of the babies in the womb. The other end of the device is pressed to the mothers’ swollen bellies. The pinard is the visible connection between the baby and the midwife, revealing the new life within that yearns to come out.

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