A True Story of the East End in the 1950s
Call the Midwife’ is a most extraordinary book and should be required reading of all students of midwifery, nursing, sociology and modern history. It tells of the experiences of a young trainee midwife in the East End of London in the 1950’s and is a graphic portrayal of the quite appalling conditions that the East Enders endured.
If you ever feel badly about your childhood, tune into either the Netflix series or the audiobook of Call the Widwife by Jennifer Worth. At least we had an outhouse—wasps in the summer, black widows otherwise. To hear the deplorable conditions of the East End of London in the 50s, however, is unimaginable. The conditions were horrid. The TV series gives you glimpses, and by the glimpses, I mean also the smells.
The Netflix Series
We discovered this series and immediately set about binge watching. We blazed through the first three episodes and beyond. Inspired by the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, and Farewell to the East End, the series stays remarkably true to the original trilogy. However, the series took on a life of its own and grew far beyond the original characters into ten episodes with eleven being in the offing and eight, hour long episodes each. How many of those on Netflix? Actually, Season nine isn’t scheduled until 2021.
The show is, of course, a work of fiction, although Worth’s daughters Suzannah Hart and Juliette Walton loves that the performance of Jessica Raine (as Jenny) “was terribly anxious that we should be happy with her performance and I think she’s got it just right.” Many of the characters and situations early on were borrowed from the memoirs.
It is Vanessa Redgrave, herself an icon, who narrated three series and then appeared on screen.
It’s eye-opening watching Jenny Lee learn about the slums of postwar Poplar. The characters of Sister Julienne, Cynthia, Chummy, Sister Evangelina, and Sister Monica Joan (among others) are introduced early and quickly claim a place in your heart—cast so exquisitely, and very true to what Worth’s daughters remember. Even the handyman Fred and all his shenanigans are recounted with relish.
The real life Nonnatus House was moved to Birmingham during the 70s. Jennifer Worth died in 2011 at the age of 75. The first episode aired in 2012.
I’ll admit to being thrown just a bit starting the audiobook, wherein there was a prologue not introduced to the first BBC series episode. Not to fear—it quickly catches up and proceeds with memories, characters, and stories played so well in the TV series that it was easy to remember the episode and circumstance.
What I enjoyed in the audiobook were the jumps into some retrospection of the characters. We get a bit of backstory of the nuns and how they came to be midwives at the Nonnatus House.
Remarkable stories, as are some of the recreations of the accounts of several of the more difficult deliveries, especially as Jenny is being indoctrinated into the system of the House, the nuns, and the other midwives. Talk about heroes. Absolutely jaw-dropping tales of the 50s in London, the men, the women prior to any kind of birth control, the lack of sanitary conditions, clean and accessible water and toilets, and the unfortunate back alley remedy of unwanted pregnancy.
A powerful book relayed in realistic conversational tones of an amazing story, mesmerizing, full of heart and emotion, at times euphorically happy and triumphant and others tragically bewildered or heartbroken.
If this isn’t a novel you’ve already discovered, I certainly recommend the audiobook. If you have Netflix available and haven’t already binge watched—check it out. Either way, this is a win-win.
Publisher: Audible Audio
- ASIN: B01N8XUV0Y
- Print Length: 352 pages
Listening Length: 12 hrs 1 min
Narrator: Nicola Barber
Publication Date: September 10, 2012
Source: Local Library (Audiobook Selections)
Title Link: Call the Midwife [Amazon]
The Author (Goodreads): [Jennifer] Worth, born Jennifer Lee while her parents were on holiday in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, was raised in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. After leaving school at the age of 14, she learned shorthand and typing and became the secretary to the head of Dr Challoner’s Grammar School. She then trained as a nurse at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading, and moved to London to receive training to become a midwife.
Lee was hired as a staff nurse at the London Hospital in Whitechapel in the early 1950s. With the Sisters of St John the Divine, an Anglican community of nuns, she worked to aid the poor. She was then a ward sister at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in Bloomsbury, and later at the Marie Curie Hospital in Hampstead.
She married the artist Philip Worth in 1963, and they had two daughters.
Worth retired from nursing in 1973 to pursue her musical interests. In 1974, she received a licentiate of the London College of Music, where she taught piano and singing. She obtained a fellowship in 1984. She performed as a soloist and with choirs throughout Britain and Europe.
She later began writing, and her first volume of memoirs, ‘Call the Midwife’, was published in 2002. The book became a bestseller when it was reissued in 2007. ‘Shadows of the Workhouse’ (2005; reissued 2008) and ‘Farewell to the East End’ (2009) also became bestsellers. The trilogy sold almost a million copies in the UK alone. In a fourth volume of memoirs ‘In the Midst of Life’, published in 2010, Worth reflects on her later experiences caring for the terminally ill.
Worth was highly critical of Mike Leigh’s 2004 film Vera Drake, for depicting the consequences of illegal abortions unrealistically. She argued that the method shown in the movie, far from being fairly quick and painless, was in fact almost invariably fatal to the mother.
Worth died on 31 May 2011, having been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus earlier in the year.
A television series, Call the Midwife, based on her books, began broadcasting on BBC One on 15 January 2012.
The Narrator: Nicola Barber is an Audie Award-winning narrator whose voice can be heard in television and radio commercials and popular video games such as World of Warcraft. Nicola is also an Audie nominee in the Solo Female Narration category for her work on Murphy’s Law by Rhys Bowen and Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. –This text refers to the audioCD edition.
©2020 V Williams
Attribution: Worth’s personal information from interview with her daughters at Radio Times