Call the Midwife is the first book in a series of memoirs by Jennifer Worth, a midwife working in London’s East End in the 1950s. The book has been adapted into a T.V programme by Heidi Thomas (currently filming its sixth season) which airs on the BBC.
Jennifer Worth was in her early twenties when she began working with Nonnatus House, a convent in Poplar, East London, to complete her training as a midwife. In her memoirs Jennifer details the stories of the people worked with and treated in her early career, covering tales of breeched births, eclampsia, prostitution, big families and language barriers (both Cockney and Spanish!)
I love the T.V series and thought it was finally time to give the source material a read. The book itself is well paced and easy to read, and although there is not much of a focus on ‘developing characters’, there are glimpses into the personality of each midwife, Nun, and patient. I’m unable to account for how much of my enjoyment of the book came from my engagement with the T.V programme, and the world and characters developed by the cast and the excellent writing of Heidi Thomas. However I can say that prior knowledge of the series did not detract from the book in anyway. The stories in the book mirror season one of the programme, which allowed me to feel some familiarity with the characters, and may have also contributed to the how quickly I was able to read the book.
By far the best thing about Call the Midwife is its insight into an infant NHS and the female perspective of poverty and social conditions of the 1950s. The National Health Service was rolled out in 1948, giving people access to aspects of health care that they previously were unable to afford. The women of Nonnatus House were at the forefront of caring for the community by working hard to treat everyone through both midwifery and district nursing. In particular, some of the more intrinsic challenges which the nurses face can be summed up in Jennifer’s encounter with an elderly patient who fears medical practitioners due to their pre-war experience of the workhouse and New Poor Law system.
The memoirs of Jennifer Worth show the merging of a new medical frontier with the practicalities of slum conditions and poverty through personal stories. Her writing portrays the anxieties and fears that I suspect are not so distance from those of expecting mothers today, and yet her descriptions of squalor, bomb sites, and condemned tenement buildings creates a world that is strikingly different to our own. The use of personal stories with elements that transcend history make this memoir an excellent read not only for those who love the T.V series, but also for those interested in the post-war period, the beginnings of the NHS, or the power of female relationships.
Favourite Character: Sister Evangelina
This was difficult, because not only are the characters in Worth’s memoir depictions of real people, I also had to distance myself from the characters in the T.V series. Sister Evangelina is a perfect example of the ‘people are complex’ mantra. She has many sides to her personality, and we learn that although the midwives feel that she has no sense of humour, that doesn’t mean that her patients don’t find her hilarious. She is the character that represents class differences, a working class Nun contrasted against her middle class Sisters, but allied with the hardships of those in the community she cares for.
Favourite Line: ‘Like most women of her generation, Flo was an experienced amateur midwife.’
The Cockney Dialect appendix is a great insight into the mechanics of 1950s cockney slang and speech patterns, as well as the origins of the speech. According to this appendix, certain elements of cockney syntax and grammar can be traced back to the Tudors!