How Call The Midwife handled one of the darkest chapters in women’s history

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the latest episode (season 12, episode three) of Call The Midwife on BBC One. 

Content note: this article contains references to domestic violence and sexual abuse that readers may find upsetting.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Call The Midwife as a cosy period drama – even when it deals with its heavier themes – because it is set squarely in the past. It is a time in which nuns rode around on bicycles, nurses made house calls, women took Le Cordon Bleu cookery courses to impress their future husbands, babies were promptly named Ian (and it was considered a fresh, even modern-sounding moniker) and washing was strung up all over east London’s tenements.

Here’s the thing, though: there are horrors contained within the parameters of all this cosiness. Real horrors that didn’t happen all that long ago, and aren’t so far removed from our own lives. 

Real horrors that many women still endure around the world today.

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I’m talking, of course, about the story of Sandy (Rose Riley), the single mother whom Sister Veronica (Rebecca Gethings)approaches in the third episode of Call The Midwife’s twelfth season. Poplar’s new health visitor is worried that Sandy hasn’t brought her son to any of his developmental reviews – but, when Sister Veronica arrives at the Talbot house, she accidentally finds herself crashing a wedding party.

Sandy, it seems, has married Joe Talbot (Mark Strepan), a cheery young man who seems more than willing to take on her two children as his own. He makes small talk with Sister Veronica, and even offers her a piece of cake with “extra marzipan” – but the tone shifts ever so slightly when he cracks a joke about the nun’s size. It’s as if a mask has slipped, almost.

The next morning, Sister Veronica returns to chat with a pale-faced Sandy, whom the nun assumes is suffering the “joys of a hangover”… until she spots the blood-stained bedsheets in the sink.

Sandy orders the nun to get out, but just under a week later, she brings her little boy into the clinic for his tests – and takes the opportunity to reveal the truth about her and Joe’s relationship.

“There are things that happen in marriage,” she says haltingly. “Things that people are meant to want – that people, men, believe is theirs to have. And if they can’t have it, then they just…”

“Take it?” asks Sister Veronica. “Against your will?”

Sandy nods, but when the nun uses the word “rape” to describe the situation, the young mother begs her to forget that she ever said anything and flees the scene. Indeed, it’s not until her husband violently assaults her as her terrified daughter listens from the next room that Sandy decides the situation has become too much to bear.

It is at this point, though – after Sandy has fled her marital home, her two young children safe in her arms – that the true horror begins.

With encouragement from Sister Veronica, Sandy visits the local police station and explains to them that her husband has assaulted her and locked her out of their house. That she can’t access her home to retrieve her or her children’s belongings. The officer on duty, however, insists that it’s a situation she shouldn’t be bothering the police with, and that she should take it up with her landlord.

“I have outlined Mrs Talbot’s circumstances to you in words of one syllable,” snaps Sister Veronica. “She is a mother of two. She has been terrorised by her husband, who has excluded her from her home and exercised force, and yet you insist you have no power to intervene.”

“What kind of force?” he asks, sounding almost bored.

“Physical force, of an indecent nature.”

“I see.”

“I’m not entirely sure that you do,” says Sister Veronica, furiously scrawling the word ‘RAPE’ on a piece of paper and shoving it under the officer’s nose. But, while it is enough to shock this particular officer into action, Sandy’s ordeal continues long after she is asked to sit and wait for a police surgeon to examine her.

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Of course, the prospect of an internal examination frightens Sandy, but it’s something she is willing to endure if it means that she might be free of her husband. (“Words aren’t enough, they said. They have to look for evidence…but there will be evidence.”) 

The man who enters the room, however, is not a medical professional; rather, he is a senior detective – and he has a few further questions for our protagonist to answer.

“I understand you told the constable at the front desk you’ve been raped,” he asks her bluntly. “By your husband. Is that correct?”

As Sandy nods, he rolls his eyes and replies: “In which case, there’s nothing we can do.”

“He’s raped me every single night since our wedding,” she cries.

“It’s not possible under English law for a man to rape his wife.”

Call The Midwife has exposed an unhappy reality for too many women around the world.

It will undoubtedly come as a shock to many Call The Midwife viewers that – as per the mammoth legal tome Pleading And Evidence In Criminal Cases, which remains the leading practitioners’ text for criminal lawyers in England and Wales – a husband could not be found “guilty of a rape upon his wife” until 1991.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the Sexual Offences Act 2003 that the illegality of rape within marriage was laid out explicitly under UK law. And alarmingly, attitudes are still slow to change: a YouGov survey of 4,000 people commissioned by the End Violence Against Women Coalition in 2018 found that one in four Britons believed that non-consensual sex within marriage did not constitute rape.

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“I should have put up with it, when nobody knew and it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to be ashamed,” says Sandy, wrapping her arms around her children as they take shelter in an overcrowded hostel.

“There are plenty of people and institutions who deserve to be ashamed,” says Sister Veronica, “but not you.”

Eventually, they determine a course of action together. Sandy will divorce her husband: “Because if I do that, I’m saying, ‘sod you’ to him. I’m saying, ‘I don’t accept you or your body or anything you did to mine.’”

When they sit down to ask Matthew Aylward (Olly Rix) for advice, however, it seems even this small victory will only be possible at enormous expense.

“The legalities are pretty grim,” he says. “Since your husband hasn’t deserted you or committed adultery, I think you will have to try to prove cruelty.”

“He raped her,” says Sister Veronica. “Is that not cruelty enough?”

“Legally, rape is only grounds for divorce if the husband rapes another woman,” responds Matthew uncomfortably, “but not his wife. Also because you’ve been married for under three years, you will have to prove exceptional hardship or depravity.”

“When I saw you shouting, I knew I could shout, too.”

“Like strangling?” asks Sandy. “Pressing his hand on my throat?”

“I certainly think you have a case, but you have to be prepared to go into detail in court. And he might contest. He might even in theory choose to defend himself, so he would be able to question you in court.”

“The more I learn about the legal system, the more sickened I become,” says Sister Veronica.

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Of course, this is Call The Midwife, so the episode ends on a hopeful note: Matthew promises to help Sandy secure a lawyer, she thanks Sister Veronica for encouraging her to speak up and, while her story isn’t wrapped up neatly, it is implied that the young mother will find a way to become free of her abusive husband.

It is vital that we remember, though, that Sandy is the exception, not the rule. Because marital rape remains legal in many countries, including Uruguay, Panama, Chile, Honduras, Ecuador and El Salvador.

In these countries, rape in marriage is not a criminal offence unless the victim can prove that she suffered additional violence. In Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala and Nicaragua, rape in marriage is perfectly legal.

The fight, then, must continue. Because, as Derby Rape Crisis group said in 1990: “Recognising marital rape is a crime [acts as] a signal to all men contemplating marital rape that society no longer tolerates the medieval idea that marriage is the wife signing away her rights over her own body.”

And, while marital rape is at last a crime in the UK, we must, all of us, do what we can to help other women around the world, even if all we can do is offer our support. Because as Sandy tells Sister Veronica: “When I saw you shouting, I knew I could shout too.”

You can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, for free and in confidence, 24-hours a day via 0808 2000 247.

Call The Midwife airs on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. 

Images: BBC

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