Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Shadows Of The Workhouse by Jennifer Worth

As everyone knows, I am obsessed with nuns and midwives. Are there two more awesome types of people than nuns and midwives? The answer is no. I am addicted to the tv series Call the Midwife and I basically inhaled the book  last year. 

If Call the Midwife is a massive love letter to the NHS, then Shadows of the Workhouse reminds us how much we owe to the Welfare State as a whole. The book is in 3 parts and the first and third are about the effect of the workhouse on the lives of working class people in the first half of the 20th century.It’s so shocking to me that the workhouse existed so recently that my great-grandparents must have lived in fear of the workhouse, that my grandparents could have been taken there as children. We are so lucky that this could never happen to us. 

I don’t know if people outside the UK know about the Workhouse (although everyone has seen Oliver so I guess they know what it is?). The workhouse was pretty much the only safety net for the elderly, orphaned, disabled, ill and unemployed in Victorian and early 20th century Britain. The workhouse was tough – the inmates had to do tough physical labour and the conditions were so crowded that disease spread quickly and easily, killing huge numbers with each outbreak. The great tragedy of the workhouse was that families would be broken up as soon as they arrived: adults were separated from children, male inmates from female. Once they had entered the workhouse, families knew they were unlikely to see each other again. The fear of the workhouse and the shame of having to enter it led people to take their own lives rather than go and the fear continued long after the last workhouses closed. 

SO, the actual book!

Part one : The Children of the Workhouse.

This part is the most upsetting part of the book. I read the first few chapters late one night and I felt physically sick and cried so much I had to spend ages cheering myself up before I could sleep. This bit tells us the story of three people she knew who had been in the workhouse together: Fred and Peggy (who were brother and sister) and their friend Jane. This section is pretty tough going. I find it incredible that this type of thing happened less than 100 years ago. 

Warning: there is incest and a very graphic description of a child being whipped.

This bit is what I imagine those misery lit/true life stories are like.

Part Two: The Trial of Sister Monica Joan.

Everyone’s favourite crazy old nun has been caught shoplifting and goes on trial. Do I need to say more? This section also tells us about Sister Monica Joan’s background and how she left her rich and privileged family to become a nurse and then a nun. 
“Were you a suffragette?”I asked. 
“Bah! Suffragettes. I’ve no time for suffragettes. They made the biggest mistake in history. They went for equality. They should have gone for power!”

Part Three: The Old Soldier

This section is about an old man that Jenny befriends and he tells her stories about his life and his time as a soldier. Pretty straightforward. 

How do I sum up? I can't sum it up without making it sound really horrific! It's pretty downbeat and depressing in places and there is no midwifery(!). But the book is incredibly moving and it shows us just how lucky we are to live now, even if we do have a government of EVIL. 

p.s. still bad at the review thing a waaay behind. oh well. 

1 comment:

  1. All I know about the workhouse is from A Muppet's Christmas Carol, when Beaker and the Dr guy are trying to collect money for the needy so they don't have to go to the Workhouse like Michael Caine says they should. Bad Michael Caine. "Most would rather die!" "Then they'd better hurry up, and decrease the surplus population."

    Dickens- not a fan of the Workhouse, obviously. But we ARE totes lucky to live now- I'd be in the workhouse with my parents for sure. (Charlotte would be ok, obvs.)