The process of Alyce’s transformation in The Midwife’s Apprentice from the scared Beetle to the strong and independent girl she is at the end of the book fascinates me for what it implies about childhood and growing up.
The moments where she gains skills and, more importantly, emotions that were previously denied to her as a waif roaming from village to village and sleeping in dung heaps have a common theme: Alyce’s maturation is based upon her ability to care for others. In order to grow up and claim maturity for herself, Alyce must develop the maternal instincts she already has.
By the second chapter when Alyce is working for the midwife, we know that Alyce has maternal instincts. She is still underfed and barely noticed, but she adopts a cat and gives away part of her already sparse meals to feed him. This is not quite maternal, but it does show a tendency towards caring and nurture.
When the village boys try to drown the cat, Alyce’s attempts to bring him back to life are a marker against which to measure her growth throughout the book:
If Beetle had known any prayers, she might have prayed for the cat. If she had known about soft sweet songs, she might have sung to him. If she had known of gentle words and cooing, she would have spoken gently to him. But all she knew was cursing: “Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I’ll kill you myself.”
She doesn’t know any of these because she’s never experienced them. Her maturation includes learning about some of these. (She never learns about prayer, oddly enough for the Middle Ages.)
The midwife commented earlier on her cleverness in finding a dung heap to sleep on in order to keep warm. No one taught her about that, but she figured that out as she didn’t figure out kind words.
There are a lot of things to say about that, but for now, just one: when it comes to her own survival, she can figure things out instinctively. The proper way to care for others is part of learning and growing up.
The maternal aspect of Alyce’s rescue of the cat is made clear a bit later, when a woman gives birth in the field and so Alyce actually sees the midwife at work. After the midwife screams and curses at the mother, as is her method,
Jane the Midwife eased the child out of his mother and into her hands. It out Beetle in mind of the time she got the cat out of the bag.
Alyce (or Beetle still at this point) is not yet changed from the stupid, scared girl that the midwife saw as a perfect opportunity for free help and no competition. But she has begun feeling like she could bring life into the world.
Interestingly, the moment Alyce chooses her name is not one of caring for others or of acting maternal. After going to the fair,
Beetle stood perfectly still. What a day. She had been winked at, complimented, given a gift, and now mistaken for the mysterious Alyce who could read. Did she then look like someone who could read? She leaned over and watched her face in the water again. “This face,” she said, “could belong to someone who can read. And has curls. And could have a lover before nightfall. And this is me, Beetle.” She stopped. Beetle was no name for a person, no name for someone who looked like she could read.
Frowning, she thought a minute, and then her face shone as though a torch were fired inside her. “Alyce,” she breathed. Alyce sounded clean and friendly and smart. You could love someone named Alyce. She looked back at the face in the water. “This then is me, Alyce.”
Getting a name is all about what others will feel towards the person with that name. Alyce herself has not changed. But she could imagine other people loving her, and that gives her identity. It’s not about caring for others here, but about having others care for her.
And yet no one does love her when she gets her name. As she remarks only a bit later,
This business of having a name was harder than it seemed. A name was of little use if no one would call you by it.
The first person to call her by the name she has chosen, not to laugh and say she is still nitwit, is Will Russet, one of the boys who has always plagued her. Will becomes one of the people who love her, but the reason he begins to is quite telling.
In an echo of her rescue of the cat earlier, Alyce saves Will from drowning after he falls into the river and the other boys run away, knowing none of them can swim. He pleads with her to throw him something, but she’s terrified.
This passage is narrated so as to almost elide the point where Alyce makes the decision to help. She says she’s scared, she creeps out on a branch to see where he’s gone, and suddenly the branch she’s on is being used to bend down to the river and give Will something to grab onto.
The moment when she realizes this is a good at to save him is not mentioned at all. Is it because she’s so terrified that she wouldn’t have stopped to think? Or because this tendency to save others is so instinctive?
Either way, when Will recovers, he says,
“You have pluck, Beetle.”
“You have pluck, Alyce.”
She claimed an identity for herself with her name, a girl who looks like she can read and who can be loved. It takes serving someone else, though, to get this identity recognized.
But once Will has recognized her, he helps in her process of nurturing that identity. Alyce learns to sing when she helps Will with his cow as she is giving birth. She uses gentle words on the cow “as she heard Will do,” and makes sweet noises, “although none would have called them sweet but she and the boy and the cow.”
Her memory of this wonder-filled experience later turns into a song when she catches herself rhyming in her recounting of the event to her cat: “All shiny they were, and sticky to touch. I did not even know them, but I loved them so much… And so it was that Alyce learned about singing and making songs.”
Between the birth itself and this memory, we are told that Alyce “grew in knowledge and skills…Alyce, grown accustomed to herself, did not notice. But the villagers noticed, and…they began to ask her how and why and what can I.”
She barely notices the gradual changes in her, until the next chapter when the boys are teasing the cat again and she lets out a string of shouted threats, to everyone’s surprise, especially her own.
Her caring instincts were there from the beginning, but before she had a name and before Will started noticing her and before she learned to sing, she was too afraid to rescue the cat until it was almost too late. Now she can make her voice heard without even thinking about it.
When she finally gets to help with a human birth, told by the midwife to “do nothing” while she goes to help another mother, Alyce draws on what she’s learned from birthing the calves – she speaks soothingly and gives Joan “all she had of care and courtesy and hard work.” In total opposition to what she’s seen the midwife do with human birth, she does what Will showed her with animal birth.
(There’s a whole separate and fascinating topic in comparing the incidents of animal birth and mothering, human birth and mothering, and humans helping in the birth or mothering of animals.)
This event teaches Alyce to smile:
Alyce felt so much pride and satisfaction that she had to let them out somehow, and so she smiled, which felt so good that she thought she might do it again.
The response of a smile comes not only from having accomplished, but from hearing the new father say,
“We have no need of you, Jane. Your helper has taken care of us with her two strong hands and her good common sense.”
She is needed and appreciated. And that night, she dreams of her mother, though she can’t remember the dream when she wakes. Coincidence? I think not. I’m not sure yet what exactly I think the significance is.
It could be that she’s needed and appreciated, in a way completely and obviously opposite to her precarious position earlier, when everyone knew that no one cared about her and therefore took advantage of her. And so now she dreams of belonging again.
Or, and I’m leaning more towards this, she has participated in creating a mother and so dreams of her own. She has, in the process of growing up, taken her place as part of the chain.
And I’m leaning towards that because of what happens immediately after: she becomes a mother to a little orphan boy.
Which to me means that the organizing principle of maturation in this book is the ability to shed childish selfishness and turn around to help the next child.
Selfishness being a marker of childhood is not presented as a bad thing in and of itself in this book. It’s simply that growing up and claiming adult selfhood requires cultivating a care for others.
That doesn’t mean total self-erasure either – Alyce smiles because she feels pride and satisfaction, and this prompts her to start actively learning – she has proven to herself that she can.
Before this, she couldn’t have said to Edward, “Everybody is somebody and so are you,” because she didn’t feel like somebody. Claiming a personal identity she is proud of enables her to continue maturing and passing that on to another child.
Again, passing it on does not mean totally giving of oneself with no personal benefit. Even this maternal aspect provides personal gain: “A sudden pleasure inside her warmed her hands as she reached out to smooth the boy’s hair,” as she tells him her secret of keeping warm in the dung heap.
After sending him off to the manor for work and food, Alyce feels so much satisfaction that she “thought not of her tasks but of Edward’s face and the abundance of bread and cheese up at the manor looking for a hungry boy’s belly to fill.” This is not completely selfless, as her daydream later shows – she imagines Edward starving and unhappy so that he would cling to her when she goes to visit him and take him away.
His happiness, safety, and comfort later get her to cry for the first time. Earlier, just after she saved him, Alyce fails to deliver a baby and runs away after the midwife comes to the rescue.
Strange sensations tickled her throat, but she did not cry, for she did not know how, and a heavy weight sat in her chest, but she did not moan or wail, for she had never learned to give voice to what was inside her. She knew only to run away.
This is a setback, and she goes back to thinking of herself as nobody and nothing – not what she told Edward. She hangs on to the thought of the boy at the manor as she spends weeks working as a nobody at an inn “and wondered how he fared and if she had at least done that right.”
Will again helps her grow and says during a visit to the inn when he discovers her there, “Bah, Alyce. I seen you with Tansy. You got guts and common sense. Just because you don’t know everything don’t mean you know nothing.” She needs to get the courage to go back and face her failures so she can continue learning.
But first she goes to check on her one possible success and imagines how Edward will react to her arrival. But “Alyce learned about the sometimes mighty distance between what one imagines and what is” when Edward makes sure Alyce will leave him there, because he is happy.
This confuses her emotions, as would be expected:
She would not be bringing Edward back with her to make her heart content, but she knew she had not failed him, and she breathed a heavy sigh of sadness, disappointment, and relief. It felt so good that she did it again and again until her sighs turned to sobs and she cried her first crying…
Alyce still doesn’t go back to the midwife just yet. First she has what is basically a test when a woman in labor unexpectedly turns up at the inn where Alyce is working. Alyce successfully delivers the baby when no one else has any idea what to do.
That chapter ends with Alyce going outside and thinking it’s the first of June, “the month, as Magister Reese could have told her, named for Juno, the Roman goddess of the moon, of women, and of childbirth.” Alyce herself doesn’t know this, but that makes it no less significant.
Juno represents Alyce becoming a woman, but she also represents Alyce being born. The more obvious reference of childbirth is of course the woman who gave birth, but Alyce’s transition to woman is a birth in its way. It makes me wonder if the use of childbirth in a narrative of growing up means that every transition is a new birth of its own.
Finally, Alyce decides to return to the midwife and learn all she can to continue delivering babies.
That night she dreamt she gave birth to a baby who gave birth to a baby and so on and son on until morning.
This is the resolution, which requires Alyce to have fully overcome her struggles, and in this genre, to have fully grown up. This sentence, following everything that has happened in Alyce’s process of growing up, points to the idea of maturation as assuming one’s place in the chain of motherhood.