Inspired by the delightful BBC series Call the Midwife, over the last few months I have checked all four of Jennifer Worth’s books out of the library and devoured them. They were equally wonderful, historically fascinating and thought provoking all at once. Each book has a different perspective and for me each one brought to my attention some new and interesting aspect of history that I had no idea about. They left me wanting to know more, I loved that!
I should start by giving some information about the author, Jennifer Worth. If you have seen the BBC series, Call The Midwife, you will know her as one of the key characters, Jenny Lee (her maiden name). She trained as a nurse and midwife in London in the early 1950s and then went to work in London’s East End and specifically in the Docklands area. She worked in this area in a very interesting time, not long after the end of WWII, in the heart of bomb-ravaged London’s working-classes. Life and London was changing and changing quickly and this left some unique challenges for the people Jenny and her colleagues served. In later books she uses her time as a hospital nurse and matron to tell the continuing story of the people of the East End. Jennifer Worth left nursing as still quite a young women to pursue a career as a music teacher and to raise her own family and perhaps because of this she is able to bring 1950s London to life, as if it was all perfectly clear in her memory when she wrote her books. I’ve read a lot of memoirs recently, good and not so good, and I tend find those written by non-writers are poorly structured and lack flow. That is certainly not the case with these books, her books capture the lives and stories of people that could so easily have been forgotten in history, in particular the lives and stories of women, the poor, and the elderly. This alone makes her books valuable for more than just their ability to entertain.
Her first book, Call The Midwife, centres around Jenny Lee’s early years as a midwife working with an order of nuns, the first to offer obstetric care to women in the East End. The stories are amazing, sometimes completely unbelievable (delivering 24th and 25th babies for Conchita Warren, a South American beauty who speaks not a word of English and who nurses her 25th baby, born at 28 weeks and less than 2 pounds, back to health). The women in the stories are strong, yet often extremely vulnerable. Their circumstances are horrifying and the choices they sometimes have to make are heart wrenching. The other midwives are also great characters. Chummy is hysterically funny because of her ungainliness, ridiculous way of speaking and sheer determination (to learn to ride). The nuns are all quite different, from the bizarre Sister Monica Joan to the rough and ready Sister Evangelina and the always calm and controlled Sister Julienne.
The second in the series (although they each stand alone) is Shadows of the Workhouse. This one for me was quite confronting and left me wondering how I could have been so oblivious to this part of history (though granted it was in another country, but still). While the first book is like a series of short stories, some linked, but others completely separate, this one followed the lives of just a few poor souls who had endured life in the workhouse as children and a few other fascinating characters. I really had no idea about the history of workhouses in the UK so for anyone else as ignorant as me here is a quick run down. The workhouses came into existence in the as early as the 1600s and was supposed to be a place of last resort for those facing complete destitution. It was perhaps the first form of social welfare, but what resulted was cruel and soul destroying and especially so for children who were raised in such institutions through no fault of their own. Families were separated on entry, men and women were isolated from each other and children taken from their parents, their heads were shaved and they were given rough, ill-fitting uniforms to wear. They were made to work at the most mind-numbing jobs for often no actual purpose and were not allowed to leave except through sponsorship from someone on the outside. People lived their entire lives in such institutions. And when the workhouses finally closed in the 1930s such souls were turned out into the streets completely ill-equipped to manage their own lives. Worth tells the stories of three such workhouse survivors. Each of them has a harrowing tale to tell and one which has shaped the whole of their lives. As well she includes the story of an old soldier, the enchanting Joseph Collett and the tale of Sister Monica Joan’s prosecution for shoplifting.
Worth’s third book, Farewell to the East End is similar in style to the first, it’s primarily the retelling of anecdotes, isolated yet similar in some ways, and is set during the final months and days of Nonutus House and the working nuns who made their lives there. The East End docks were changing rapidly, and the largely derelict towers of flats, bomb damaged and lacking in modern facilities, were being pulled down. The inhabitants were moved into public housing all over London and the UK. The stories have a sadder element than those in the first novel, telling of elderly people losing their communities and women struggling with the most awful of choices. Large families living in appalling conditions, with just one or two rooms and no internal plumbing, not being able to get better, bigger accommodation because they have TOO MANY children. By the end of the book the nuns have gone on to other work – some caring for AIDS patients when no one else would – the other midwives go on to lead very different lives, the towers have been bulldozed, the docks are quieter than ever and the East End is becoming a totally different place. The way cities change and populations move, dissipate and sometimes disappear is an interesting studying. This particular case is made even more interesting because it involved the loss of a language (of sorts), Cockney. Worth examines the language of the East End in all three books and it is a fascinating tale of linguistics.
Finally, the fourth book, In the Midst of Life, is something quite different and perhaps not considered part of the same series. This last chapter focuses mostly on Worth’s time working in hospitals and in particular caring for the elderly and dying. It is less anecdotal and more of a history of how death and dying have changed over decades, how families have dealt with the dying and how the modern health care system ‘manages’ dying. For me this book meant the most, having in recent years watched as both my grandmother and father-in-law passed away in quite different circumstances. But more importantly because I now have an elderly grandfather, still living independently, but frail at the same time. She deals with this very situation and I had a complete change in perspective after I read this book. Having said that, this is probably the only book I wouldn’t recommend if you were just wanting an entertaining read.
As for the others, they were easy and quick reads that left me wanting more. I loved the historical perspective each one gave, especially because this was an area of British history I had no knowledge of. I love the stories of ordinary people, often doing extraordinary things in horrific conditions. While many of the stories are virtually identical to the BBC series there was still enough in them to keep me interested, the story of the Ship Girl alone was worth reading them for and if you think Chummy was a character on screen, she’s even more so in text.