While waiting for Downton Abbey’s third season to begin in January, I have been enjoying a new BBC series, Call the Midwife. It is based on the memoirs of a midwife named Jennifer Worth, and so I also began reading her book.
Jennifer Worth, who was “Jenny Lee” before she married, worked in London’s East End during the late 1950’s. She and other young single midwives lived in a convent called Nonnatus House, side by side with a handful of nuns who also worked as midwives, ran a clinic for the expectant mothers in the area, and helped the young women like Jenny Lee complete their training by giving them field experience.
The East End was comprised of slums and tenement housing. Unwashed children ran through the streets. Houses of prostitution was commonplace. Families usually squeezed into one or two rooms. But with England’s socialized medicine, prenatal and antenatal care was available to everyone, regardless of their financial situation. The nuns and young midwives were kept very busy.
Despite its whimsical cover, this book is not for the squeamish. But it is not gratuitously graphic either. Most chapters deal with different birthing experiences that Jenny was in charge of, assisted in, or witnessed. The East End’s poverty level brought its own set of challenges in many of these experiences, such as lack of sanitation in people’s homes, lack of electricity or phones for calling the doctor, or pre-existing illnesses in laboring mothers.
But this is not a story full of depressed people in depressed circumstances. The author shows her awe and respect for the East Enders’ resilience despite those circumstances. If you visit my other blog, Improvise the Harmony, and read the post called Happy =), it explains that, as long as people’s basic needs are met, they have the same capacity for happiness as someone who is much wealthier. This memoir is a testament to that fact.
If you have been watching the series, you will recognize that some episodes have been completely lifted from the book. But there are plenty that are not. The book also gives us more insight into the regular cast of characters–who are based on real people–such as the other young midwives and nuns at the convent.
There is one chapter that made me squirm a bit, that was graphic in another way. The chapter entitled “Cable Street.” This chapter has, unfortunately, given me reason not to suggest the book to my book club. It is a shame, too, because the rest of the memoir is delightful. Despite this chapter, I do recommend the book. Jennifer Worth’s writing style is the perfect balance of reporting and descriptive, and it is never boring. It is one of those “slice of life” books that takes you to another place in another time. The fact that everything in it really happened makes it all the more interesting.