This post is specifically concerned with the last season (4) of the TV series Bramwell and attempts to defend it against the perception that the show and eponymous character ‘fell apart’ in the last two episodes.
I argue that no, Bramwell did not go off the rails. There is a reason the title of the last segment puns on the phrase ‘loose women.’ Anyone with even a glancing acquaintance with Victorian England and the condition of women at the time in that part of the world would understand the psychological pressure that Bramwell faces from the very real threat of disenfranchisement. The cinematic depiction of the last season mirrored the exact horror and psychic fragmentation a woman like her (a doctor, the founder of a charitable hospital, who has achieved something on the strength of reason and ability in a man’s world) experiences when she realizes that Woman in her time is still the victim of her sex, that she will continue to be victimized and penalized as such (through prostitution and moral judgment), and that even a woman of birth and money like herself can be brought low by the circumstance of her sex (in her case, by unwed pregnancy).
She refers to 3 women who matter, who needs to be saved—herself/her unborn child, Dora and another one. They are paralleled by the three men in the last episode—the soldier, the doctor, and the pious man–, men who should be representative members of society helping unfortunates, but men who are unmoved by the horrors everybody knows.
In the scenes leading up to her confrontation with the benefactor-to-be, Bramwell lashes out at the indifference and unfeeling reactions of every one who punishes and scolds women who fall foul of the sexual line but who will not act to prevent harm and protect women and children, even after they know the dangers and the persons concerned. Bramwell is in effect railing against social utilitarianism where the happiness of the masses is arbitrated by a self-appointed few (the doctors, priests, legal and juridical institutions deciding for the very women their society uses and abuses), and whose stark lines of acceptability make no room for chance, social imbalance or necessities of survival.
A Victorian notion of duty marks this series of confrontations, when Bramwell is told off for taking 25 pounds to ‘buy’ the child prostitute. She is castigated and judged for being delinquent in keeping hours and money, even though her motivations were far higher than anyone around her. When asked why she did not try to rescue the child through the police, or the Salvation Army, or other social institutions, the character says she does not know, but we do—when the fine upstanding men around her know and do little or nothing, can she depend upon them to take matters seriously and do right? Bramwell, through her actions, is trying to get people to recognize their social duty—to do whatever possible to prevent vice and protect the possibility of innocence. When the child is found dead, it is the death of her innocence too.
The nuns at the convent where Bramwell seeks a possible anonymous confinement supposedly do good work but they want to teach her humility. They are not accustomed to seeing women asserting their will in a man’s world. And in the hands of religion, God’s world is still Man’s world. Even as the Brides of Christ are chaste, so must ordinary Eves be, and their God is interpreted in man’s image, harsh and exacting. Is it any surprise that Bramwell says that in the absence of god, she is sure He will understand if she steps in and does what she can to protect one child, i.e., in the manifest absence of the compassion that is divine, ordinary ungodly people must do what they can, and if there is indeed a benevolent God, He won’t mind the interference of people such as Bramwell. On this point, her actions –judged as impulsive, thoughtless, etc.—are in stark contrast to the measured mercy of the priest.
The dialogue with her colleague and former fiancé who says she has brought it upon herself is very Victorian, and indeed very American (to attribute absolute responsibility for such a crime to the woman alone). It is interesting to note that not one of the people close to her intercedes with Major Quarrie who has made her pregnant on her behalf, until she berates him in the street. And then they punish her for her condition by dismissing her, showing so little concern for her future welfare and earning capacity for the two. Then and now, shame overrides self-reliance.
The point, I think is to show the horror that lay beneath the cover of Victorian society, and the remnants of it that haunt the post-Empire world now. The men used and abused the cover and the privilege more, and were inured to its costs. Bramwell, being judged for being pregnant, feels empathetic about the plight of children. She feels for the powerless children because she is fighting to retain power as a woman in a man’s world, and is failing, just as the child struggled to remain at the hospital when Bramwell insisted that she go. When the child dies, Bramwell feels a sense of urgent personal responsibility, and struggles to convey this to the men who are more ‘objective’ and detached. She had so far been an extraordinary woman in a man’s world, now she was forced to be a more ordinary woman in a man’s world.
The last episode shows her ‘breaking up’ in society’s eyes—a woman who erred, as a woman, when all this time she had tried to be a less emotional creature—a woman who has finally fallen and broken. Society could forgive a woman for being a doctor like she was, for that transgression, but it would not forgive what it saw as hubris and overreaching. Bramwell could not be allowed to be both woman and man (be sexual, sexually liberal and eager, as men were allowed to be, for example, Dr. Marsham, who was never castigated for frequenting brothels except by Bramwell and even then he saw no merit in her accusations; did he take revenge for her disclosure in the street by helping her get dismissed?), and bear a child. The nun’s words were telling — she must be made to learn humility through being made ‘no different’ from the other unfortunate women who came to the convent for their confinement.