Context is crucial in films like ‘Philomena’

Bad childhood memories can last a lifetime. I speak from experience. When I was quite young, my parents were away, and my mother’s baby sister and her husband came to stay with me. One night we went to the movies. We saw “Jane Eyre,” the adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel set in Victorian England.

In the show, the heroine, only 10 years old and an orphan, is taken to an institution for children of similar circumstances. In charge is a Church of England clergyman who is cruel with the children.

This is what I shall never forget. Jane makes a friend, another girl who breaks some rule. To punish her, the headmaster orders her to walk in circles in the courtyard with a placard announcing her crime around her neck. It was cold and raining. Around and around she walked. Jane watched her through the window. Soaked and freezing, the little girl at long last completed her punishment. She caught a cold and ultimately died.

This next story is real life. As a young priest, I met an elderly woman who was dying. She had one child, a daughter. When she died, I was involved in the funeral. The daughter told me that she had been born when her mother was 16, and her mother was never married. The daughter was born in 1902.

Her mother’s brother and sister were still alive. They had nothing to do with their sister for all the years — no contract of any kind, complete shunning, because she had a child out of wedlock. They would not speak to her if they met her on the street! The surviving daughter had never met her aunt and uncle, who, of course, did not attend her funeral, although at the time they were quite well.

The deceased was a convert to Catholicism. Her brother and sister were lifelong practicing Methodists.

It was a generational matter, not religious. When this woman died, her nephew, a Methodist minister, called me to ask if he could attend her funeral. I told him he would be most welcome. He was of another generation and frame of mind. He said he had never been allowed to see his aunt, but he discovered that she existed. He was ashamed his father, the deceased woman’s brother, had treated her so heartlessly. When the minister arrived, he embraced the woman’s daughter. She, and he, wept.

A recent motion picture is “Philomena.” The great British actress Judi Dench plays the principal role. The script is taken from the actual experience of a young Irish girl who, after a brief encounter with a boy, realizes she is pregnant. Her father takes her to a facility for unwed mothers operated by nuns. The baby is born in due course, but Philomena had to allow him to be adopted by others. Then, everyone thought this policy was best for mother and baby alike. In later life, Philomena wants to find him. The nuns back at the institution refuse to reveal who adopted the child. (Such secrecy was the civil law, here as well as in Ireland.) The nuns come across as quite mean. She finds him, nevertheless. So, hooray, good and kindness win despite those cold-hearted nuns!

Put the film into historical context. Pregnancy outside marriage was the ultimate taboo across the board in Victorian culture and for decades later. Also, the rule was “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Children were treated, by design, quite harshly, at least by modern standards.

Remember the story of the woman whose siblings disowned her when they learned she conceived outside marriage? Not one Catholic was in sight. Remember “Jane Eyre?” Not one nun was in sight.

Such was life once upon a time.

It is time for stories such as “Philomena” to be told in their complete cultural context.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.