Highly acclaimed BBC drama Call the Midwife has been praised for its ability to be both cosy and gritty at the same time – presenting a heart-warming vision of a close-knit community in 1960s London, while refusing to shy away from dark and complex issues. A nun develops post-traumatic stress after being attacked, neglected children fend for themselves, dozens of babies are born without limbs; poverty, racism and trafficking abound. And yet nurses Chummy and Barbara both make happy marriages, Sister Monica Joan eats cake with gusto and nothing is allowed to interfere with weekly clinic in the community centre.
One of the show’s strengths is its inclusion of unusual relationships and family structures: the blended Turner family with both adopted and half-siblings, secret lovers Patsy and Delia, interracial relationships, Fred and Violet’s late in life romance and adoption of a young man with Down Syndrome. But one of the most radical aspects of the screenwriting is the way single women are portrayed – particularly since the main focus of the show is midwifery.
The fictional order of St Raymond of Nonnatus is based on the real-life Community of St John the Divine, founded in 1848 as a nursing order and still continuing today with a focus on healing and pastoral care. The nuns’ nursing and midwifery work is combined with the daily offices – Matins and Lauds in the morning, Vespers and Compline in the evening. Their faith is taken very seriously by original memoirist Jennifer Worth and the scriptwriters who continued the series into the 1960s. No one’s belief in God is ever made light of, and both Sister Bernadette’s exit from the religious life and Cynthia’s entrance into it are treated with equal seriousness. Some women are well-suited to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and others are not. Even the eternally wise Sister Julienne experiences momentary doubts on encountering an old boyfriend. But by and large they are well satisfied with their chosen path, particularly Sister Monica Joan, who left an upper class home in order to serve the mothers of the East End. She sees the religious life as a liberation, not a restriction – when asked by her hospital roommate if she ever ‘wanted a fella’, she replies, ‘I chose a life of service and study. And the freedom to pursue both. For me marriage would have been a jail.’ Widely read and with eclectic interests including astrology, she does not seem like a woman who would have been content in the domestic sphere. Similarly Sister Evangelina, possessed of a simple but steadfast faith, is equally suited to her vows, although she does state that the vow of obedience is much harder to keep than poverty or chastity. After her death in series 5 Nurse Crane remarks to Trixie, ‘there are some women who make a very decent fist of being spinsters, I like to think I’m one of them, and if you sidestep the small detail of her marriage to Jesus, so was Sister Evangelina.’
The introduction of the fictional Nurse Phyllis Crane is one of the best plotting and casting decisions of the entire series. Unlike the other non-religious midwives, who are all 20-something and remarkably good looking, Phyllis is stout, 50ish and a master of her profession. Initially an object of some ridicule, she becomes a professional and personal mentor to her younger colleagues. At one point she reveals that she is illegitimate, which for a child born in the early 19th century would almost guarantee a rough start in life. Apart from a brief flirtation with a man in her Spanish class who turns out to be married, she is content with her single status and develops a deep affection for her young roommate Barbara. She is certainly not one to mince words: “I sometimes wonder what the last two wars were for… Every time the world goes up in flames, they draft women in to pick up the slack, and then once it’s over, it’s back in your box and don’t say boo!”
In Kate Bolick’s memoir Spinster she states that ‘in spite of her prevalence the single woman is nearly always considered an anomaly, an aberration from the social order.’* This was particularly true in the 1950s and 60s, and yet Call the Midwife – a screenplay praised for its historical accuracy – portrays them as part of the community. Unlike medical dramas set in hospitals, which follow much the same problem-solving formula as murder mysteries, or dramas about high-flying professional women, Call the Midwife portrays the drama of everyday life, with the medical and social dilemmas of the post-war baby boom, without once crossing into the turgid realms of melodrama. Too many stories imply that single people are lonely and frustrated, and only want to find the “love of their life” (thanks a lot, Jane Austen). Apart from the fearless portrayal of difficult social themes, one of the most revolutionary things that Call the Midwife has achieved is the fact that it features single women who have found deep and abiding satisfaction in their professional lives, their friendships and their contribution to community.
*Bolick, Kate. 2015. Spinster: Making a life of one’s own. London: Corsair.