If you've been living in a hole in the ground (or another country...or you just aren't that interested in nuns and/or midwifery) you may not be aware of the recent TV series, Call the Midwife. It was about a group of nursing nuns and midwives in the East End in the 1950s - i.e. perfect Frances telly. They couldn't have come up with a tv show I would enjoy more. Luckily I got the book for my birthday, so the fun midwife-nun fun didn't have to end!
Call the Midwife is the first of Jennifer Worth’s three memoirs about working as a midwife in the East End in the 1950s. If you watched the series, you’ll recognise several of the women and the stories. The main difference in the book is that Jenny is the midwife in all the cases, the other nuns and midwives are all more secondary characters, while in the tv version they were more developed as characters in their own right. This is no problem in a memoir, but I can see why they changed it for the tv version.
Highlights include Len and Conchita Warren, a couple who can’t talk to each other without their children there to interpret (she only speaks Spanish and he only speaks English) but who have their 24th and 25th babies during the book. There is wonderfully mad Nun Sister Monica Joan, who greets Jenny when she first arrives at Nonnatus House: “This is a unique time to be alive. So exciting. The little angels clap their wings.” There are three (THREE) chapters dubiously titled"Of Mixed Descent", which deal with unexpectedly-black babies, and the reactions of their parents. This book gives you exactly what you want from a book about a midwife in the East End - stories about amazing women in difficult situations, lots of birth, moments that make you cringe and moments that move you to tears. There are instances where she describes real deprivation - people living in flats that have been condemned, people using newspaper instead of bedding, small children left to run around with nothing on their bottom half so as to save on washing. This aspect made it much grittier than the tv version which had a blitz spirit, "keep calm and carry on" attitude to squalor.
The part of the book that made the deepest impression on me had nothing to do with birth. It is the story of a woman who ended up in the workhouse, separated from her children who she would never see again. When I read this chapter I was so angry that I was actually shaking. Everyone has heard of the workhouse but we associate it with Dickensian London, not the 20th Century. This woman had sold everything she owned, even her teeth, and the blankets off the bed. Her poverty was such that she couldn't afford a burial when her baby died, instead she had to put him in the river, in a box weighed down with rocks. After this, she had no choice but to go to the workhouse:
The children were not particularly unhappy as yet; in fact, it seemed something of an adventure to them, creeping out in the dead of night and making their way along dark roads. Only their mother was crying, because only she knew the dreadful truth: that the family would be separated once they entered the workhouse gates. She could not bring herself to tell the children, she hesitated before ringing the fateful bell. But her youngest child, a boy of nearly three, started coughing, so she pulled the bell resolutely...They cuddled together on the sweet-smelling hay, and the children fell asleep at once. Only the mother lay awake, her arms around her children, until dawn. Her heart was breaking. She knew that this would be the last time she would be allowed to sleep with her children.Reading this book has made me realise just how important the NHS and the Welfare State are... and how much contraception has changed all our lives! To put it into context for you: "In the late 1950s we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963[i.e. when the Pill became available] the number had dropped to four or five a month." The fact that women are STILL having to fight for access to free healthcare and contraception is terrifying. But I really need to write about the Handmaid's Tale if I'm going to start talking about that!