Some light reading for you…
EPISODE ONE: In episode one, characters inadvertently grapple with the definition of bravery in post-war London. Though an outsider might think that Jenny’s choice to work in deplorable conditions constitutes bravery, Trixie points out that true bravery comes from the patients. Both Conchita and Pearl show bravery through handling their respective situations. Conchita, who gives birth prematurely to her 25th child, confidently asserts that she will care for her baby without the help of modern medicine or hospitals. Pearl also shows bravery when she miscarries her child due to syphilis and determines that she must continue leading her life despite her grief. While Londoners during the war may have defined bravery by the amount of medals one possessed, post-war London in Call the Midwife defines bravery in a more inclusive fashion.
EPISODE TWO: Trust, the theme of the second episode, comes into play through many characters, most notably Mary and Jenny who seem to misplace trust the most. Mary’s trust in her pimp, Zakir, leads to a compromising pregnancy that propels the story forward. Though unwed pregnancies are still somewhat frowned upon today, they were totally inadmissible fifty years ago, and prostitution is still as out of the question today as it was back then. Mary’s misplaced trust in this situation leads her into a world of trouble. Though there are instances that show her lack of trust, such as when she insists that a client not shortchange her, Mary is generally too trusting of others.
Though Jenny is also too generous with her trust, Jenny’s trust is in humanity as a whole while Mary’s trust seems to be directed towards individuals. Jenny, in her naivety, trusts that humanity is generally uncomplicated and in high moral standing. Her sheltered upbringing shields her from the unsavory facets of life like prostitution and poverty. Mary even comments on Jenny’s innocence, though Mary’s inability to place trust wisely is just as problematic. Jenny’s trust in institutions and Mary’s trust in individuals costs them both when Mary’s baby is seized. Though one could argue that this arrangement is for the best, the situation could have potentially been avoided had Mary and Jenny been more guarded.
EPISODE THREE: Episode three addresses the idea of loving people despite their shortcomings through the social issues behind slum living. In previous episodes, Sister Julienne and Father Joseph tell Jenny that the poverty in East End is not only financial, but also emotional. Despite these reminders, the lesson of looking past flaws in order to love doesn’t seem to truly stick with Jenny until meeting attention-starved Mr. Collett. Forcing Jenny to ignore the bug-infested tenement allows her to fully appreciate Mr. Collett’s rich history and idealistic outlook on life. By giving love, Jenny is able to combat aspects of poverty in Poplar while also destroying her preconceived notions of the poor.
When Jenny learns of Mr. Collett’s eviction, she concerns herself with his wellbeing and not with the controversy surrounding the structurally unsound tenements. Had Jenny been the same middle-class girl from her younger years, she may have simply dismissed the tenements as unsafe without considering their importance in the community; however, her connection to Mr. Collett allows her to understand the crucial role of the tenements. Connecting with Mr. Collett despite his living conditions allows her to move forward in her character progression, driving her closer to the people in Poplar and further from her privileged upbringing.
EPISODE FOUR: Writers highlight the haunting nature of grief in episode four through the high infant mortality rates of the 1950s and the loss of close relationships. Shirley and Ron Redmond are initially elated at the arrival of their daughter after having previously suffered a miscarriage, but when their daughter is kidnapped, they are forced to revisit the grief of losing a child. Simultaneously, when Mary kidnaps the Redmond’s baby and is eventually forced to give that baby up to Jenny, she relives the pain of giving up her biological daughter, Kathleen. Though higher mortality rates and impoverished conditions amplify the pain, the nature of grief is still universal. Even Sister Bernadette feels loss in this episode when she tries to participate in the nurses’ activities. Sister Bernadette’s actions reveal that she is pining for the nurses’ freedom and is perhaps regretting her decision to become a nun. Though she isn’t mourning a literal death, she is mourning the death of her former life.
Episode One: “They’re always having babies. Unless someone comes up with a magic potion it’s not going to change.” Sister Evangelina’s prophetic words strike at the heart of conditions for women in the impoverish neighborhood of London’s East End. Without reliable birth control, quality of life is severely impeded. One woman has literally been pregnant for the better part of 15 years and nearly dies as a result of her latest pregnancy.
A side benefit of this “magic potion” might also be disease prevention. Another woman in the story has contracted a venereal disease from her husband and looses her unborn child as a result.
What was that again about birth control not being a women’s health issue?
Episode Two : A new arrival’s blueblood heritage brings up issues of class and privilege at Nonnatus House. Although Chummy’s heart is clearly in the right place she struggles under the ever-critical eye of reverse snob Sister Evangelina.
But the real issue in this episode lies in Mary, a victim of human trafficking. When she realizes she is pregnant she flees her abuser to avoid a backstreet abortion. She reaches out to Jenny who helps her find safety in a Catholic refuge run by Father Joe. Mary is euphoric when her baby girl is born, but Father Joe gives the baby to another couple to adopt without Mary’s consent. Mary is heartbroken, perhaps forever damaged, but Father Joe maintains he did what was right and best for the baby and mother.
Episode Three: Joe, an aged veteran comes under Jenny’s care. Although she is repulsed by his living conditions, he finds them more than satisfactory and his sweet upbeat spirit touches Jenny. But his tenement building is condemned and he is forced into a hospital that neglects his care. As a result his legs are amputated and he eventually dies. Doesn’t a man who not only served his country, but lost his two sons and only children doing the same, deserve better?
An older couple visits the clinic. The husband is elated with the pregnancy but the wife seems wary and anxious. She later confides to Trixie that although she has come to care for her husband, she only married him for convenience. When the child is born his black skin betrays the truth. Yet, the husband is smitten with the baby all the same, loving him unconditionally. The midwives at Nonnatus House wonder if he noticed, but perhaps love is blind after all.
Episode Four: A ghost from Jenny’s past comes to haunt when she discovers that Mary has returned and stolen a young couples infant daughter. Jenny manages to talk Mary into relinquishing the child and the baby is returned to her elated parents. Mary is placed in jail and faces a harsh reality. At Jenny’s urging the sisters of Nonnatus House convince the mother to have mercy on Mary, but her future is still uncertain. Mary raises many questions. Having been a victim her entire life, can she be saved? Can her shattered mind ever be repaired? And what responsibility does the community have toward this wounded soul who fell through the cracks?
Episode 1 deals with the power of love. Compassion hasn’t driven Jenny to this convent and into peoples’ homes – she thought Nonnatus was a small private hospital. Yet while Jenny admittedly sets off to the East End to “side-step” romantic love and take the “easier” way out, what she finds is a challenging experience that opens her eyes and eventually her heart to a people she had no idea “lived like this.” At first unable to hide her disgust with the patients and their housing in the 1950s impoverished parish of Poplar, and unable to comprehend why people wouldn’t care about their own health, Sister Julianne is quick to point out that women such as syphilitic, pregnant Pearl are “not in the practice of caring, or being cared about.” She confides to Jenny that when she was new to district practice she often found it hard to “conquer [her] revulsion.” Poverty-born Sister Evangelina is less understanding and prods Jenny in a room filled with soot and a newborn to, “Come along – sometimes we have to deal with what the Lord has sent us.” Even young nurse Trixie, once thinking she deserved medals for her service, now contends the mothers are the brave ones – the “heroines” – for continuing to have babies in such conditions again and again. She assures Jenny, “You’ll find your feet.” Even their antiquated equipment – ie, glass anal tubes – however, is an improvement on 10 years ago when premature babies and emergent deliveries would not have received such care –- ambulances, “flying” doc teams, specialized children’s hospitals, etc., now provided by the National Health Service. For Conchita Warren’s 25th baby, induced two months early when Conchita trips and falls doing laundry on her soot-clouded roof, the immigrant mother nevertheless refuses modern care and insists she’ll be the hospital for her child. Sister Julianne tells Jenny, “Only time will tell if Conchita will succeed; we must see what love can do.” The love between Conchita and her husband, despite a language barrier, had already produced two dozen children. Despite criticism from outsiders, inside the house it becomes clear the affection between them and their children is genuine. In a way, that statement by Sister Julianne could have been speaking of Jenny’s journey in the community. Despite her initial disgust at the soiled newspapers preserving mattresses, community pot of soup at the Warren house, the smells and sights coming from beneath Pearl Winston’s britches — by the end of the episode Jenny barely winces when Pearl warns her the chair she’s about to sit on was peed on by her son. When Pearl wonders aloud what Jenny must think of them all, Jenny offers: “in fact, I think you’re all heroines.” A notion Pearl receives warmly. Despite the clouds of soot by day and the “worst fog in five years” by night that soil Jenny’s initial view of the East End, the episode ends with Pearl smiling softly out the window, turning up the uplifting music on the radio, while Conchita happily rocks her thriving baby on her roof – on a clear, sunlit day. More than just finding her feet, in her closing voice over Jenny states she now had “begun to see what love could do… Love was – like midwifery – the very stuff of life, and I was learning how to fly with it.”
Episode 2 deals with innocence and purity, and the loss of it. Instead of starting during the day, this one starts at night, where most innocence is lost. Jenny delivers a baby whose mother first proclaims about the new midwife, “she’s too young!” Working the streets that night is Mary, a young prostitute who demands all the coins she just earned. When another girl points out she’s pregnant and that the boss won’t let her keep it, Mary steals money and flees to protect her unborn child. Meeting Jenny Lee in the streets, Jenny notices the new pregnancy, explaining she has a “trained eye.” Mary tells her, “you’re too young!” to be a midwife, to which Jenny smiles, “I’m older than you.” When the conversation turns to Mary’s turbulent childhood and her now common 3-4 johns a night, to Jenny’s surprised reaction Mary states, “I love your innocence Nurse Lee – which of us is older now?” After Jenny takes Mary in for the night, and Sister Julianne recommends she go to a church with Father Joe, Mary protests, having witnessed a crude abortion by crochet hook – and seen the dead (innocent) baby placed in a chamberpot. Meanwhile, rather goofy Chummy arrives, speaking of child-oriented things such as her time as a girl in India, consulting with Sr. Monica Joan on a doll she’s making, and wondering if they have ponies, as she’s never learned to ride a bike. When the girls attempt to teach her, children taunt her in the street. Sr. Evangelina wonders what “experience” she has of “our people,” claiming this is just a “stepping stone” for her. Later in class, the nun scolds Chummy for being tardy to her appointments; the other “students” Jenny and Trixie come to her defense. Chummy’s first patient is a woman who has lost 4 babies due to a deformed pelvis from rickets – a childhood disease. When Chummy is faced with a difficult experience in the form of a breech delivery from a 42 year-old mom, she excuses herself for “precisely one minute” during which she gathers herself but not before being interrupted by children running amok. She takes charge and instructs the leader, Jack, to call for help. With shaking hands, Chummy carefully maneuvers the baby and mother and demands quiet when Sr. Evangelina and the GP arrive. Having done a tremendous job and grown (up) as a nurse, she finally gains Sr. Evangelina’s praise. Having gained the respect of Jack, the taunting ceases and she masters the art of bicycle riding – something most people pick up in childhood. As for Mary, when her exam appears perfect according to Jenny, she responds, “I could get used to perfect.” But when Father Joe deems her “soft in the head” for being duped into prostitution by a man pretending to lover her, he sends Mary away to Kent to be taken care of there. With a sweet voice she thanks Jenny Lee for being her friend. She delivers a healthy baby girl named Kathleen – it means “pure” she points out when Jenny visits, and relates that while midwife kept saying “it’s nearly over,” Mary kept thinking “it’s nearly starting.” Unfortunately, they give her baby away and when Jenny protests that she thinks the loss will kill Mary, not to mention the abscesses in her breasts from blocked milk ducts, and the fact that she didn’t consent, Father Joe claims she can’t give consent because she’s only 15. Ironically, given all the trauma she’s experienced, she’s still legally considered a child. The closing voice over reveals that Mary never reunited with her baby; she may look for her but her name wouldn’t be “Kathleen” – in a sense, her innocence and purity are gone. Jenny and Chummy have both grown up in a way in this episode through their experiences with the patients care for.
Episode 3 deals with being open to love – namely romantic love. Jenny treats the wounds of an old veteran, Joe Collette, in a dilapidated house. Though initially disgusted with the place, he eventually warms her over with his stories about his children lost in the war, and his wife lost in the Blitz. She offers a “date” with him – to share a glass of sherry after work. When he asks if she has a beau she says no, but that night Jimmy, a doting boy from her past appears seeking shelter as he had done at her nursing school dorm. Though worried she’ll get in trouble, she lets him sleep in the pantry with Fred’s mating quails and candied apples – love birds and the fruit of temptation. Though several people, from the nuns to Joe, mention Jimmy’s sweet on her, Jenny blows it off until it reaches a boiling point at dinner when he jokes she might be thinking of the nunnery. Jimmy departs, kissing her cheek and apologizing, saying he won’t bother her anymore. When Jenny visits Joe at the infirmary where he’s been moved once they condemn his building, she kisses his cheek. While ironically in worse health from negligence in the clean infirmary than in the bug-ridden home Jenny at first loathed, he still asks about Jimmy. He states the theme of the episode by sympathizing that if you open yourself to love, heartache could follow. He certainly feels it’s well worth it though, and tells her, “You’ll know the secret of life my dear, when you know how to love.” As for the other patient of the episode, Trixie and Cynthia deliver a baby for a mother scared her husband will leave her when he finds out the baby isn’t his. Not having married for love, but because he took her and her children in, she eventually grew to care for his kindness and patience. When the baby is born black and both parents are white, the husband’s unconditional acceptance and love for his wife and new child surprises everyone when he says he doesn’t know much about babies but he can see this is the “most beautiful baby in the world.” He gives the boy the family name, and narrator Jenny reveals, as he never asked any questions, nor did anyone else. Additionally, Chummy and Constable Noakes, after flirting awkwardly the whole episode but afraid to say anything more than “You look well,” exasperate Sr. Evangelina to the point that she asks them out on their behalf and sets up a date. Jenny is moved later when Joe’s health deteriorates, his legs are amputated and he doesn’t last long after surgery. The only attendant at his funeral, afterward Jenny sits alone to open a box he’s left her in his will – sherry and the glasses they used in his old apartment. Jimmy appears (presumably by invitation) and joins her. In her voice over she reflects, “I’d seen so many lives begin, but it was the end of his that opened my heart.” They hold up a drink and toast “To Joe, my friend.”
Episode 4 holds that loss is made endurable by love. Loss is strewn throughout the episode – Jenny’s patient is a young woman whose previous child was stillborn. After enjoying a healthy, uncomplicated delivery, she is devastated when her baby girl is stolen outside her home. The kidnapper is none other than Mary, the young prostitute from Episode 2, whose own baby girl was taken from her and put up for adoption by the Church. When Jenny confronts and convinces Mary to give the child back – by telling her how the child’s real mother was missing her – Mary takes a final gaze at the baby, pleading, “Just let me get enough to get me through the rest of it.” Sister Evangelina also pleads for understanding, citing a kind of “madness” at the loss of a baby to explain Mary’s action to the baby’s mother, who should “of all people” relate, in a bid for her leniency with Mary. The mother abides. Cynthia’s patient – 27-weeks pregnant Mrs. Margaret Jones, lives in a presumably new home with her loving new husband David – boxes still unpacked around the place as she plays violin beautifully, embraces him, and convinces him that her increasing headaches are just exhaustion. Unfortunately, though she comes to the clinic, after feeling unwelcome in the chaotic lower class place, she leaves before Cynthia can examine her and discover her preeclampsia, and she goes into seizure on the way to the hospital – leading to both her eventual death and that of their baby – also a girl. When Cynthia consoles the father he says they have “no one else” – it’s just the two of them. When he finally lets go and Margaret passes on, he returns home to a house once filled with music, a wife and the promise of a child and laughter, which now stands empty, and he’s outside of it. Aloneness is highlighted when Cynthia sits by herself at a table while the Jenny and Chummy dance with their dates and Trixie works the room; Sister Bernadette, who’s watched the girls flirt and primp and prepare for the dance, suddenly finding herself alone stares into the mirror and removes her habit and glasses and takes down her hair. The only young nun at Nonnatus and around the same age as the girls, is she questioning the life she has chosen? Is this a sign of the times for the Church and the next generation of nunhood? At episode’s end, Cynthia receives a token from David – thanking her for her presence. It’s a recording of the music Margaret played in Albert Hall the night they met – “Swan Song.” As Cynthia and Jenny listen, moved, lying on the floor, Jenny’s voice over states the theme, “Just as a swan’s last song is its sweetest, so loss is made endurable by love, and it is love that will echo through eternity.”