Call the Midwife

by Jennifer Worth

Penguin, 2012

3 volumes

I love BBC TV. Even the old shows, with their fuzzy camera work and costumes that look as if they came out of a long-neglected dress-up bin. I don’t have cable, however, and can’t get PBS over my TV antenna, so I have to make do with whatever Netflix has in its stockpile.

Thankfully, that stockpile is rather considerable, but it’s not very current. So when my English mother-in-law started raving about a new show titled Call the Midwife, I had no way of watching it right off the bat. Right about the time it finally showed up on Netflix, I learned that the show is based on true events–more specifically, a memoir of the same name.

Being me, I thought, “Why watch the TV show when I can read the books?!” and headed off to the library. I still intend to watch the show (in fact, this is the first time that a book has left me feeling more eager to see its TV/movie adaptation), but I’m glad I read the books first. Experiencing the stories as nonfiction, firsthand accounts, knowing that author Jennifer Worth and her friends lived every gritty detail, was incredibly inspiring.

Call the Midwife tells the story, in three fairly short volumes, of the time Worth spent training as a nurse-midwife in the East End of 1950s London. For those not familiar with London’s social history, the East End was the city’s poorest neighborhood, the site of centuries-old slums. It was also the site of the Docklands, Hitler’s prime target during the Blitz; bombed-out buildings (many of them inhabited by drug addicts, pimps, and gang members) dotted the neighborhood.

Worth comes to the East End looking for an adventurous escape from her mundane middle-class background. Thinking she will be training in a hospital, she is surprised to discover that she will actually be living and working out of a convent–her mentors are an order of nuns who have been providing nursing and midwifery services to the East End since Victorian times. Medical care and births take place in the East Enders’ homes, which are often at a level of squalor Worth has never before imagined, let alone encountered.

Over time, she forms fast friendships with her fellow trainees and with the nuns (who are not nearly as stuffy and rigid as she thought they would be) and comes to admire the dignity, tenacity, and sheer survivability of her patients.

Her memoir is full of incredible characters and situations, many of them seeming to come straight out of a Dickens novel. And as in Dickens, many of them are dark and unhappy. Worth tells of a mother and father who smother their newborn because they simply cannot fathom having another mouth to feed; of a pregnant teenage who is rescued from prostitution, only to suffer a nervous breakdown when her newborn is taken away for adoption; of families who turn to incest for relief from the emotional and mental trauma of extreme poverty.

But just when the darkness seems unbearable, Worth finds rays of light. Conchita Warren nurses her dangerously premature 25th (yes, 25th) baby to health, in defiance of doctors’ dire predictions. Julie fights through devastating personal loss to become the successful first mistress of her family’s 100-year-old pub. Families gather with awe and love around babies delivered in clean but ragged hovels, in the midst of raucous Christmas celebrations, in a haze of soot fallen from a dilapidated fireplace.

There’s inspiration in the convent, too. Ninety-year-old Sister Monica Joan, furious at Victorian society’s treatment of poor women, defied her aristocratic family’s wishes to work in the East End. Big, brassy Sister Evangelina clawed her way out of poverty, working dangerous jobs in munitions factories, to become the order’s most expert general nurse. And trainee Chummy, vilified by her upper-class family for her complete lack of social graces and her desire to be a missionary, finds fulfillment as an intuitive and gifted midwife.

Worth tells how these women, and the ones who came before them, brought some relief from suffering to the East End. They worked through cholera and typhoid epidemics, the Blitz, and the AIDS crisis. On their watch, the area’s maternal and infant mortality rates plummeted. Terminally ill residents died with dignity at home, instead of neglected in workhouse infirmaries. Traumatized and outcast people found love, acceptance, and purpose in the convent.

Though these women could not eliminate the dire circumstances that oppressed their patients, they could make a very real difference in individual lives. And the East Enders loved them for it–Worth points out that, while police officers had to travel the streets in pairs for safety, the nuns and nurses could roam alone without fear. Her memoir is an inspiring reminder of the very real impact of perseverance, of continuing to do good works in even apparently hopeless conditions. So long as one life is touched, she shows, no cause is truly lost.

Content note: Call the Midwife contains graphic accounts of childbirth, squalid living conditions, violence, sexual exploitation and assault, and other situations that might offend or upset some readers.

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