The 1990s were a golden age for feminist TV – Kathryn Janeway was captaining Voyager, Buffy was slaying vampires and Eleanor Bramwell was single-handedly bringing medicine and women’s rights to the East End of Victorian London.
I was a thirteen-year-old baby feminist when I first encountered Eleanor, coaxed in front of the television by my mother, keen to find her teenage daughter a role model that wasn’t one of the Spice Girls. It aired in 1995, just after Bridget Jones had written her first diary entry, and ended in 1998, the month before Carrie Bradshaw came onto our screens, but although the premise was a single career woman navigating life, love and her terrible taste in men, it was so much more than Sex and the Victorian City. It was a shitty year – my mother’s sporadic hospital visit turned into twice-weekly appointments on the dialysis ward, the depression that would dog my late teens and twenties was starting to tug at me and I was grappling with being queer in a very Catholic environment. I don’t think I’ve ever needed a role model quite that badly and Eleanor, with her passion and her problems, stepped up.
The premise of Bramwell was awesome – think Call the Midwife meets Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman. A female doctor in 1890s London gets fired from her job at a hospital for correctly diagnosing someone with syphilis and opens a free clinic in the East End. Between being a medical badass and exposing the realities of the slums to family, friends and anyone else who look like they might listen, she lurches ineptly from flirtation to flirtation, confusing lust with love and making me wish that reliable contraception had been invented in the 1890s so she could sleep with men instead of accepting their proposals. Despite the multiple love interests, she didn’t pursue a man like it was her job and when she breaks off an engagement, denying herself the happy ending she wants and everyone wants for her, it’s because to do otherwise would mean sacrificing her career. She was privileged, judgmental and impulsive, but damn if Eleanor Bramwell wasn’t the most badass woman I’d ever encountered.
On a recent rainy Sunday, in the mood for period drama but having mainlined all of Ripper Street and Downton Abbey, I found myself unearthing my DVDs and indulging in nostalgia. I had my reservations. Revisiting formative media is always tricky – how often have you re-read a beloved childhood book and realised that in retrospect it was sexist / racist / homophobic as hell? I primed myself for disappointment, and waited for it to set in. It didn’t. Any sense of déja vu didn’t come from having seen it nearly twenty years ago. Call-out culture, intersectionality, social justice activism – all those things the media likes to deride as modern inventions of ‘internet feminism’ are all there. Despite her surroundings, Eleanor’s struggles were so familiar I half-expected her to post to Tumblr between operations, illustrating her frustration at the patriarchal medical establishment with a cat GIF.
She’s joined at the Thrift Street Infirmary by working-class Scot Dr Marsham, her stalwart colleague, companion, and would-be lover – ultimately a Nice Guy, with all that entails – and the prissy and fabulous Nurse Carr who crusades against alcohol, foreigners and swearing with equal relish, and it’s the realities of their lives set against Eleanor’s existence of parties and privilege that provide a lot of the show’s tension. When Dr Marsham points out that the disenfranchised poor of Victorian London might not like a wealthy, educated woman telling them what they’re doing wrong, she takes offence in a way that anyone even vaguely familiar with Twitter feminism can recognise – “I don’t see myself as some privileged creature” she insists, as though her denial of her material and practical advances negates the glaring differences in their lives. For all her proto-feminism she’s still very much of her time, her 19th century prejudices as restrictive as her corsets. Eleanor is initially revolted at the idea of gay relationships, denounces abortion and frequently displays the kind of classism that would make even Mary Crawley wince. We’ve all encountered – or been, as the case may be – her at some point in our lives.
Sophia McDougall, explaining why she hates the ‘Strong Female Character’ trope, notes that often we look for women to embody qualities that the most interesting male characters lack. It’s that dissonance that makes Eleanor compelling as a character. She’s so obsessed with occupying the moral high ground that there’s no space left for anyone else and, despite the growing number of women who were tackling social injustice at the time, labels herself firmly as Not Like Other Girls. Lucy Gannon’s excellent scripts let Eleanor be weak and unlikeable as often as she’s gutsy and admirable, and Jemma Redgrave’s acting alternately fires you up, breaks your heart and makes you want to shake her, or at least sit her down with a copy of Feminism is for Everybody. Eleanor tackles society’s ills with a Messianic fervour that’s fascinating to watch, but difficult to live with.
I know people who hate the fourth season, but it makes perfect sense to me. It’s bleak as hell, unflinching in its portrayal of the double standards at work and captures with relentless accuracy what so many of us are familiar with – the feeling that no matter what you do, it’s only a drop in the ocean when there are so many issues to solve, people to help and prejudices to challenge. In the end, what threatens to destroy Eleanor is a classic case of activist burnout combined with existing in a society that does its best to oppress her. The world is fucked, people don’t live up to the standards we set for them and there are no real happy endings for women trapped in a culture that despises their potential.
As a teenager, I wanted to be her when I grew up. Now I sort of have and I sort of am. And I’m not sure that it’s entirely a good thing. How many times have I gone off on one of my many crusades and completely missed the people closest to me who need help, or judged people who don’t wear their bleeding heart on their sleeve? These days I recommend the show to my activist friends (adding in the relevant trigger warnings because this show gets dark) and I’m not surprised by how many of them remember it. Of course we all watched it. It appeals to a certain type of politicised young woman parlaying her expensive education into making the world a better place, driven to the point of obsession, an activist with a capital Type-A. Like Eleanor, we get told to relax by friends and parents and therapists, asked why we have to be so angry all the time, can’t we just pick one cause and stop trying to change the entire world at once? Can’t we take the night off from critiquing language or boycotting Coca Cola? From the other corner we get the opposite – how dare we revel in our privilege of being able to take the night off or staying in our safe spaces instead of going out and challenging the status quo?
Rewatching it, I want to give Eleanor a hug and a Bikini Kill mix CD, tell her that taking time for herself and having a social life or a shag isn’t a betrayal of the cause, no matter what Dr Marsham or Nurse Carr might harrumph. Then I remember that today I saw my best friend for the first time in a month even though she lives ten minutes away, that it’s nearly midnight on a Sunday but I’m not letting myself go to sleep until I’ve finished writing about 2014 feminist activism and 1990s television. Maybe, eventually, Eleanor would have slowed down. Maybe, eventually, I will.
I’d love to say that because of her I survived all the Reviving Ophelia bullshit that comes with being a teenage girl, but there are scars and sadness and Fiona Apple albums that say otherwise. But I can honestly say that show saved me, the way music did for so many of my friends. Where they had mixtapes and zines, I had painstakingly-labelled VHS tapes and biographies of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Florence Nightingale. The books on the history of feminism were gradually joined by critiques of our present and manifestos for the future, by degrees in queer theory and Victorian literature and eventually by my own books. At 31 I’m the same age she was when the series ended, but without so much as a ward of an East End hospital to my name. Recently a friend from high school reminisced about the “fierceness” of our teenage years, “thinking we could change the world.” There are still days when that feels like a Herculean task. The only consolation is that I’m not alone – unlike Eleanor, I have a supportive network of activists and a movement I’m proud to be part of more often than not. And I still have a stubborn, spiky, utterly brilliant Victorian doctor who teaches me as much with all her flaws and fuck ups as she does with her success.