on 27 February 2003
'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. Some of the stories told by the author are so distressing that I have lost sleep over them and I find myself longing to know what ultimately became of Mary, the young Irish girl imprisoned for stealing a baby (her own baby having been removed from her when the nuns caring for her were unable to place her in a job that would allow her to keep her child). What happened to Mary's daughter? By my reckoning she should be a woman in her 50's now - was she ever told that she was adopted, that she had been removed from her adoring mother without Mary's consent? I have had nightmares too about the two little boys sheltering behind a chair to escape the violence of their mother's partner; what became of them, did they go on to inflict the same brutality on their own children? As a graduate of Modern History (and student midwife), I thought I knew a good deal about recent British history. How very wrong I was. This book gave me much pause for thought: the heroism of the nursing order of nuns that Jennifer Worth worked with; the courage of Jennifer Worth and her colleagues in delivering babies in the most appalling conditions; the survival instinct of the East End women - it was a complete eye-opener. Oh, that those who pursue financial gains through our litigious culture could read this book - huge families living without the basics of sanitation or even roofs (tarpaulins providing their shelter), Conchita and her 25 pregnancies. I await Jennifer Worth's promised follow-up with great anticipation - my only observation being that she needs to let us know what became of her 'heroes' and 'heroines' - did Conchita live to a ripe old age, did Mary ever escape the clutches of prostitution once released from prison? Come on Jennfer, please tell us. And congratulations on an incredible book - this student midwife looks in awe upon your skills, your courage, your ability to deliver a baby in the most desperate circumstances. And I salute the women of the 1950s East End.
on 27 February 2008
In the introduction, Jenny Lee says that she wrote this book when she realised that there was no portrayal of the role of midwives in literature. Her aim was to give an account of the role of the 1950s midwife which would do for midwifery what James Herriot did for vets. In this she has succeeded.
She presents lives of abject poverty, destitution and slum living, combined with the fact that most women did not have one or two children, but five, ten, fifteen - and in one case twenty four! As the book progresses we meet so many different characters and learn their haunting stories. The tale of Mary, the 14 year old Irish girl, abused by her stepfather and neglected by her alcoholic mother, who naively ran away to London in hope of a better life, and was forced into prostitution and later separated by force from her baby. This left me in tears, weeping for this poor girl who never stood a chance. The story of the elderly Mrs Jenkins, who the author found so repulsive until she learned of her truely harrowing experiences in the workhouse. The tale of an elderly man called Ted, who realised that the child his wife bore him could not possibly be his, but as he held the baby in his arms decided to love him as his own anyway. The tale of Conchita and Len, and their happy, cheerful home with twenty-four children! And how her maternal instinct saved the life of her premature twenty-fifth baby.
This book provides the reader with an insight into life in the 1950s East End. I studied social history as part of my first degree, and this should be a compulsary text. This book explains with great clarity the extreme level of poverty without hope of relief that was the lot for many in those days. But there were also many wonderful things about the time. People lived their front doors unlocked, had families just around the corner for support and so on.
I could go on and on about this book, but perhaps I should just say, read it and discover its value for yourself.
on 2 November 2003
Like Jennifer Worth, I was a midwife in the Fifties. Her narrative awoke many memories for me, many I'd forgotten, some I'd tried to forget. An only child, protected from the 'nastiness' of real life, midwifery training at first shocked me and then drew me into a career full of love and life: I miss it still. My 'District' was suburban London and later on a West End hospital, but poverty was there,too, alongside a richness of spirit. I used to be embarrassed by my emotional response at every birth I attended:'Call the Midwife' made me shed tears again as my memories chimed with her experiences. The 'Kangaroo Care' of Conchita's baby specially drew me as I had a spell caring for premature babies and always felt that incubator care was too impersonal; thankfully this has changed now to allow mothers much more hands-on involvement with their tiny babies.
Incidentally, I trained medical students: are they really no longer trained in this way?
May I add my plea to Jennifer Worth to complete her trilogy; the only improvement on her first book would be two more of the same.
on 20 June 2013
***WARNING!!! REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN'T READ IT ALREADY!!!!!***
I bought this as a set of all 3 of Jennifer Worth's books. I had started watching the TV series just before buying these, and really enjoyed it (I am halfway through season 2 now). The characters in the show are brilliant, all the actresses and actors done an amazing job.
Onto the book....
It took me a long time to get round to reading this properly, but when I did, I could hardly put it down! What a fantastic book of stories from Jennifer's days as a midwife in the East End. The first thing I remember thinking about this book, was how different everything really was back then in the 1950s, to what it is now. Midwifes rode on bicycles to get to their patients, the women were afraid of giving birth in hospitals and therefore opted for a home delivery almost every time. But the living conditions were so different. Jennifer talks about families with 6-10 children, cramped into a small 2 bed roomed flat, no toilet (they shared one in the middle of the housing block), washing hanging from the stairs and lines hung across the rooms.
Each chapter brought something different to the book. There are 2 paragraphs of the book I remember fondly, and wanted to share with you.
In a chapter called 'The Bicycle', which was all about Chummy, you meet a lovely young fellow called Jack. A young boy, who befriends Chummy when she is learning to ride her bicycle, and helps her along the way. Once Chummy can ride by herself, Jack walks with her to her night appointments, to make sure she is safe. They say he was like her protector, bodyguard. Chummy does something really nice, and asks her father to buy Jack his own bicycle. The end of the chapter goes like this:
Twenty five years late, a shy young girl called Lady Diana Spencer became engaged to marry Prince Charles, heir to the throne. I saw several film clips of her arriving at various engagements. Each time when the car stopped, the front nearside door would open, and her bodyguard would step out and open the rear door for Lady Diana. Then he would stand, jaw thrust forward, legs slightly apart, and look coolly around him at the crowds, a mature Jack, still practising the skills he had acquired in childhood, looking after his lady.
This passage gave me goosebumps (and again just typing it out). I thought this was wonderful, and made me so pleased to think if Jack like this.
Another goes like this:
He chatted happily all the time we had our tea. I told him how much I liked and admired his family. He was a proud father. I told him how impressed I was that they all spoke Spanish so fluently.
"They're a clever lot my kids, they are. Cleverer than their old dad. I never could pick up the lingo, meself."
Quite suddenly, with blinding insight, the secret of their blissful marriage was revealed to me. She couldn't speak a word of English, and he coulnd't speak a word of Spanish.
This was a chapter about Conchita and Len warren, a very happily married couple who had just had their 24th child! I loved this couple, both in the book and on screen.
The characters of this book really stand out. The only thing I have to say is that the 2 midwives, Trixie and Cynthia, aren't in the book very much, and are in the TV series quite a bit. That may change in book 2 and 3 though, I don't know yet until I read them. I feel a bit strange calling them 'characters', as they were real people, not fictional, but lets go with 'characters' for now.
Jennifer is the main character (obviously), and is such a great lady. You can feel her love for what she does all through the book. Although at time,s he has admitted, she felt like she couldn't go on, she got nervous in certain situations, but she always plowed through, got things done. She cared very much about her patients, Mary in particular stands out in my memory.
I love Sister Julienne, and really enjoyed reading about her. She semed like a very strong woman, but very caring and forgiving.
Sister Evangelina was a funny one. A big woman, with not a lot of patience :D But in her own way, she cared about every one of her patients, and knew just how to converse and react around them (read the chapter about Mrs Jenkins and you'll know what I mean!).
Sister Monica Joan, bless her, a lovely sweet old lady, who babbles on about lots of things that have nothing to do with the conversation! She often talks about the stars, the planets and all things space related.
Sister Bernadette I can't remember being in the book much, but her character on screen is so warm, I can't see how anyone would fail to like her.
Trixie and cynthia, like I said, weren't in the book much, but I'm hoping they will be in the other 2 as their characters on screen were very likeble indeed.
Fred, bless him, is the general handyman around Nonattus House. He always has some scheme on the go, whether it be maiing Toffee Apples in his kitchen, or keeping a pig to raise and sell!
There were other chapters which gripped me, and I have to say, the one which got me the most was the last chapter of the book. Frank and Peggy. I'm sure this will carry on into the next book, as I remember seeing so much of theri story in the TV show. A very heartfelt story between these 2, but I will not spoil it for you. All I will say is if it goes like the TV show did, tissues will be at the ready.
This was an amazing book, and I think everyone who reads it will really enjoy it. Jennifer does a great job at re-telling her stories, and really pulls you in to what it must have been like for all those living in those days. If you haven't already read it, I suggest you grab yourself a copy, and get comfortable on the sofa :D I gave my copy to my next door neighbour the minute I finished it!
on 13 March 2009
Call the Midwife should be compulsory reading for anyone studying social sciences. Written by a former midwife, it tells true stories of the patients she encountered when she worked in the east end of London in the early 50s. The poverty and degradation she encountered was both shocking and heartbreaking, yet the sense of camaraderie from the community was overwhelming. Worth portrays events which seem unbelievable to a modern reader, used to security and technological advances. The NHS was in its infancy, and midwifery was still a relatively "new" practice in terms of the recognition given to it by the medical world.
Worth writes with an ardent love for her profession and for the patients she treats. Her characters are richly portrayed and her surroundings are so vivid, you feel you are almost there in the east end. As a reader you will also travel with Worth on her personal journey of arriving at the Poplar Convent as young, inexperienced agnostic to, after experiencing first hand the courage and compassion of the Nuns with their unwavering belief in God, experiencing enlightenment at the end of the book. Incredibly thought provoking.