It is all too easy to idealize the past, viewing it through rose-tinted lenses. The simpler days of yore are perfectly wonderful when you don’t have to cope with the plumbing of yore. I believe there is give and take in equal measure in how we’ve advanced and what we’ve lost between then and now. Call the Midwife is a good demonstration.
Yet another British hit that has taken the New World by storm, Call the Midwife provides my favourite way to learn history: through story. Rather than dry facts of dates and causes and effects, I prefer to peer through the window of time into what life was like for people. What work did they do, how did they bathe, what did they wear, how did they amuse themselves, what was the home like, what were the biggest challenges in their daily life?
Call the Midwife has several factors that make it very appealing:Though a dramatization, it is based on fact, being inspired by and based on the diaries of the main character, Jenny Lee.
While set in the past, it is recent enough that the world is still familiar to us in the present day. Our near relatives lived during the Post-War age and we know enough about it to be able to enter into the story as though it was our own experience.
It takes place in what we think of as the last of the golden years. Despite the hardships of a recent war, we do rather idealize the 1950s. We know they’re about to enter the frenetic world of accessible global travel, crazy-fast advances in technology, sexual revolution, and the many other ways life was about to change. Some ways were for the better, yes, but we can look back on certain of their qualities (that tend to have to do with character and values) with fond regret.
In the early years, the living conditions of the women cared for by the midwives are appalling. Truly appalling. The flats are dark and dingy. Washing is strung over the street, or in public hallways, lavatories are shared by all residents in the building, the smog is chokingly thick, the men could be brutal, and women labour to deliver without pain relief. So many of the people are barely scraping out an existence, their poverty is painful to observe.
There is more than struggle and strife going on though. For example, just as any modern woman will be familiar with, the laundry is never finished; but while the modern women may have fancy machines to help her, she most likely is doing her washing alone in her own home. Compare that to the woman of Poplar, London, in the 1950s who does many of her chores in the company of, and with the help of, her mother and neighbours. They look out for each other. Very little of daily life is confined to the inside of the house, being more connected to the community, whether it is adults socializing in the street, children playing, or work and chores. It’s difficult for modern habits of privacy to contemplate such openness. (It’s also shocking to see little babies left outside in lines of prams while the mums are getting on with things indoors!)
The communal aspect of life means the midwives are aware of everyone in the district and their various needs. The doctor also knows them, visiting in their homes, and policemen walk their beat, knowing the neighbourhoods and what goes on there. Very few people are invisible.
So we’ve gained miraculous advances in medicine and birthing theories, but no longer have a relationship with the person helping us deliver. We have the safety net of the hospital, but forgo the intimacy and comfort of home. Our homes are larger, possibly cleaner, no doubt warmer, but largely more isolated, with less community connection. We may be more sophisticated, but are also more jaded, having lost a lot of the simplicity and wonder of that time.
Aside from the anthropological interest of the show, I also like the main characters – the nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House. While one may be cranky, she is also tender hearted. Another is eccentric, but so delightfully herself, and surprisingly intuitive and kind. The young nurses genuinely like each other, different as they are from each other. They allow each other to be themselves, appreciating the gifts of each one. I like the girly chatter as they huddle in their rooms late at night while the nuns are at the great silence, drinking the latest tipple, listening to the latest hit on the turntable, or get ready for an innocent night of dancing at the local community hall. I love the British expressions, particularly Chummy’s use of ‘old thing’ and ‘frightfully’ and ‘chap’. (One of her best lines was to her infant son, warning him against laughing at her. “The first glimmer of a smile from you, young sir, and I’ll take you to the mirror to show you what a naughty monkey looks like!)
Equally delightfully, they drink Horlicks at night, and have their tea from a cup and saucer. There’s something reassuringly calm about a cup and saucer, as you can hardly be rushing about clutching them in your hands; plus, if you have to prepare the tea and then clean up twice the dishes, you’re going to take the time to properly enjoy it!
Watching Call the Midwife inspires me to be more reflective, observant, quiet, slower, more deliberate. I think it’s a brilliant bit of television, and am very grateful that a wise executive discovered Jenny Worth’s diary, and that such a good team of craftsmen and actors have worked together to make it the beautiful production we can enjoy.