At the age of twenty-two, Jennifer Worth leaves her comfortable home to move into a convent and become a midwife in post war London's East End slums. The colorful characters she meets while delivering babies all over London - from the plucky, warm-hearted nuns with whom she lives to the woman with twenty-four children who can't speak English, to the prostitutes and dockers of the city's seedier side - illuminate a fascinating time in history.
Readers familiar with the television series based on the books will notice a few small differences between the book and the show. The book itself has an episodic feel, with each chapter describing specific incidents from Worth's experiences. The books and the television series remind me of a much-loved favorite, All Creatures Great and Small. They have similar nostalgic elements that recall a community and a way of life that now exist only in memories. Worth has captured her memories with words that have the power to transport readers to that place and time.
1950s East End London was a poor and rough place but her nurses uniform afforded her respect. Just how poor and crowded the area was shocked me. Most families lived packed into small 2 room places, and it was the norm to have at least 5 or 6 kids. Most families kept clean and tidy homes, but descriptions of some who lived in squalor- piles of human waste indoors, flies, half naked dirty children- astounded me.
People couldn't afford to get a doctor for the delivery of a baby, and as mothers grandmothers, aunts and any older woman about could tell you, you didn't really need one. Such was the level of knowledge amongst them all, things were managed at home with the local midwife and GP if needed.
Chapter by chapter Worth reveals the personal stories of the people she encountered in the course of her early career. So often, the stories are sad. Families were destroyed upon the early death of the husband/father, and few options were left for a mother trying to support a large brood of kids, and little or no income and no social security. Alcoholism, prostitution, condemned housing tenements. And then stories of loving and supportive families, sober hard-working, proud men who loved and helped their wives in the home- which was so unheard of then. The mixed bag that is humanity. A fantastic social history.
Non fiction is often a slower read than fiction. This book was surely an exception - every time I picked it up I found I had whizzed through another 20 to 30 pages without even realising. It completely engrossed me with its stories of 1950s midwifery and the life of that time in the East End of London.
Ms Worth was a young midwife, training under the nuns of Nonnatus House (pseudonym) and travelling around her area of London on a bicycle. Undeterred by rain, ice and even smog, she went to the assistance of the young mothers in one of the poorest suburbs. It was this insight into their living conditions and social interactions that made this book so fascinating.
There are so many wonderful characters in the book - some stay with us throughout, such as the nuns and the other midwives, others are met in passing as we learn their harrowing or heartwarming stories. I don't think I shall ever forget Conchita and her 24 children. Without a word of English, she and her husband Len, who could not speak Spanish, raised a happy brood and were still very much in love. Her tiny premature baby (no 25), no bigger than the palm of her hand was nursed at home when she refused to let him go to hospital. And then there was Mary, a poor abused girl from Ireland who had hoped London would offer her a better life. Like many others, she found herself trapped in prostitution and then pregnant. Ms Worth met her wandering the streets of London and helped her where she could, but her story was not a happy one.
This book is full of such stories, both happy and sad and expertly told.
In the days before the pill families were much larger than today, yet the accomodation was smaller and poorer. The people seemed to have a gritty determination that is found more rarely now and managed to pull through all sorts of struggles.
I'm sure I shall read this again at some point, but meanwhile there are three other similar books by Jennifer Worth which I can't wait to read.
For the adolescent male mind, a part of every man regardless of his age, birth combines mystery, naughty bits, gross stuff, and joyful tears that leave us confused and often incapable of expressing the emotions that each aspect create. We don’t know whether to say cool, or gross, or to simply claim that allergies are behind our glistening eyes. Should we cowboy up, or do our best Mike Farrell impersonation?
Mrs. Worth uses clear, concise, and stark medical terminology to describe the rape and sexual abuse that created some of the babies she delivered, and in doing so makes the horror all forms of sexual abuse more tangible and disgusting. This is balanced against the steadfast love between many of the husbands and wives she serves, the nuns and midwives who live with them, and most importantly the love God has for mankind.
There were a couple of surprises for me in reading Mrs. Worth’s tale. I didn’t realize that even as late as the 1950’s indoor plumbing was not available to many East End Londoners, or the magnitude of the impact German bombing had on housing. The final surprise was the final delivery Mrs. Worth narrates, which was her faith in God. Even in the midst of the poverty, cruelty, injustice that so often reeked havoc in the lives of those she worked with, Mrs. Worth found love. And where there is love, there too is God.
Jennifer Worth is an engaging storyteller. She decided to write about her experiences in response to an article in the Royal College of Midwives Journal by Terri Coates regarding the underrepresentation of midwives in literature. Coates urged, “a midwife somewhere to do for midwifery what James Herriot did for vets.” Worth took up the challenge and eventually sent her first volume to Coates to read. She writes, “Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine? Yet midwifery is the very stuff of drama. Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain, followed by joy or sometimes remorse. A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all. Why then does she remain a shadowy figure, hidden behind the delivery room door?”
Some do question how much of Worth’s memoir can be accepted as truth. There are several reasons for this. It’s important to note that Worth did change names and perhaps she did it to protect her patients and her friends (although she keeps her real name and uses her maiden name: Jenny Lee). Nonnatus House is where she works as a district nurse and midwife is a pseudonym for the Sisters of St John the Divine in Whitechapel (Worth’s setting is in Poplar in the East End of London). Questions also arise regarding the identity of a midwife and if she actually existed. Worth describes Camilla “Chummy” Cholomondley-Browne as “Six foot two inches tall, with shoulders like a front-row forward and size eleven feet, her parents had spent a fortune trying to make her more feminine, but to no effect.” She said her first impression of her was a “bloke in drag.” Worth’s daughters, however; insist they once saw a photograph of the midwives taken during their mother’s tenure and a woman seen in the photograph fits Chummy’s description, but no Sister of St John’s can recall a midwife with her description or name. Furthermore, no one knows who has this photograph because it has disappeared. Then there’s the story of Sister Evangelina who Worth describes as a nurse who parachuted into German territory during the First World War. Critics are quick to point out the story regarding Sister Evangelina is invented. I wouldn’t necessarily discount what Worth writes as untrue. By World War II parachute schools were being established and I believe France was the first to create a woman’s airborne unit. Perhaps Worth heard about this and by the time she wrote her memoir it was part of her memory as having happened.
For the women who have had children, I salute you. Reading Call the Midwife certainly put things into perspective and her descriptions of living situations in 1950’s East End London sure make you appreciate our present day living. Worth describes in rich detail, midwives getting a call in the middle night and having to use a bicycle to attend patients. Imagine having to travel up 12 miles per a day carrying a bulky (and no doubt heavy) medical box and traveling everywhere via your bike. It’s interesting to see how much the medical field has changed these past 60 years. Worth mentions how much changed with the introduction of the pill, “Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!” I reread this section a few times and had to contemplate for a moment. I wonder what the Sisters thought of the pill? How was it viewed among the poor in the East End?
As a woman living in the 21st century we take a lot for granted. As Worth explains, “In the nineteenth century (and earlier, of course) no poor woman could afford to pay the fee required by a doctor for the delivery of her baby. So she was forced to rely on the services of an untrained, self-taught midwife, or “handywoman” as they were often called. Some may have been quite effective practitioners, but others boasted a frightening mortality rate. In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes stood at around 35-40 per cent, and infant mortality was around 60 per cent. Anything like eclampsia, haemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother. Sometimes these these handywomen would abandon a patient to agony and death if any abnormality developed during labour. There is no doubt that their working practices were insanitary, to say the least, and thereby spread infection, disease and often death.” It definitely makes one appreciate the steps taken to pass England’s Midwives Act, which of course lead to the Royal College of Midwives being created.
No medical knowledge is needed to fully appreciate Worth’s book. She’s very thorough and explains everything; clearly she made it her mission to pay attention to detail. Also she uses the Cockney dialect throughout the book to showcase how the people in the East End talked, but it’s easy to read. There’s a guide to the Cockney dialect and even goes into detail regarding the difficulty to put a dialect into print. Furthermore, there is a detailed glossary, which further explains the medical terminology used.
If you’re a fan of medical shows or are just interested in medical history, I highly recommend Call the Midwife. For everyone else, I do believe you’d enjoy reading this lovely memoir. If you’re wondering how much is changed between the book and the series, I have to say not much. A lot of the patients she mentions feature prominently in the series, however; the book provides much more in-depth information. You’ll be left wanting more and luckily there are three volumes to her memoir.
I must say though if you get queasy from talk of bodily functions and very graphic details of childbirth and infections you may want to read this one in print so you can skip over these passages. Especially when she talks about the woman’s body odors and I’m not talking just sweat. She also talks a lot about some of the things she hates about her job in a very matter of fact way , she pulls no punches, she also describes the advances being made in midwifery and anti-(pre-for Americans) natal care.
Some of the women you will feel very sorry for, their lives are tough but some of these women will amaze you like the woman I mentioned above Conchita(*sp audio*) with the 24+ kids but she has the best attitude the first time we meet her she is giving birth to her 24th child the second time she is having her 25th and it doesn’t go as planned but she is still an amazing woman. The stories of the mixed race children especially the story of Ted I thought it was great that he accepted this child as his own and loved him anyway. Some of the Nuns were pretty funny too.
Nicola Barber narration is very well done, going from British to Irish to Cockney accents all seamlessly. CD #6 felt like it ended in the middle of a sentence, but the way some of these stories just trail off I could be wrong about that.
I wanted to read this because it is going to be on PBS Masterpiece as I am a Masterpiece geek .It was a good book but not quite the story/plot I expected, will be curious how they make it into more of a storyline than a bunch of shorter stories. I will order the paper book for our local library also. I also see this is the first in a trilogy and hope the rest will soon be available on audio! Especially since this one kind of just trailed off like the rest of the short stories.
I received this audiobook from the Audiobookjukebox Solid Gold Reviewer Program & Highbridge Audio for a fair and unbiased review.
I have a very difficult time reviewing this, because I read the audio version. I believe I would have given this book at least four stars for the content and the writing if I had read it in a print version. However, listening to the audio, it was very difficult for me to give it three and a half stars. I am sorry to say that to my ears, the narrator was very unsuitable for this story. She has a soft, sing-song style which would be well suited to a cozy mystery, or a children's fairy tale, but it was very unpleasant to hear the hard details of this story read in such a voice. It made a mockery of it. My teeth would grind as I tried to hear the real story behind the voice reading it. Very unsatisfactory experience, and I could not recommend the audio version of this story to anyone.
I enjoyed this enough to download the other two books in the trilogy.