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Worth's Call the Midwife

June 26, 2014 - Jodelle Greiner
I’ve been watching “Call the Midwife” on PBS and really enjoying it. The series is based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of being a nurse and midwife in London’s East End during the 1950s.

Written years after Jenny Lee worked with the nuns on the poor side of London, “Call the Midwife” has the same unflinching, but compassionate, view of life in Poplar as the series does, and fans of the TV series will certainly recognize several of the cases depicted in the show, such as Conchita Warren, pregnant with her twenty-fourth baby; Molly, the 15-year-old Irish prostitute whose baby was taken away, and Winnie, married to a white man, but who gave birth to a black baby.

But fans should not expect the book to be the same as the show. Yes, Worth tells of numerous births and includes medical details, just as the show does. The characters you know and love are there: the nuns, fellow midwives Cynthia and Chummy; Fred the handyman, and Jenny’s old friend, Jimmy. Worth also describes life on the docks and the tenements, which could house five thousand people in six blocks. Some were condemned due to bombing in World War II, yet people still lived in them because they had nowhere else to go. The novel talks of the same world, but does not have the same gloss as the show, and is often grittier.

The keen observations are there in the book, as well, but Worth, the writer, is even more probing. She has intelligence and a penetrating curiosity, unencumbered by a false need to mask her interest.

Jenny comes to Nonnatus House a good nurse and midwife, but with a lot to learn about life. Describing herself as an agnostic, she has a difficult time understanding what draws people to religion, and Christmas is especially agitating for her.

“I remember looking at the small plastic figures and the straw and things and thinking, how on earth can an intelligent and well-informed woman (Sister Julienne) take all this seriously? Is she trying to be funny?”

Living in a convent forces Jenny to view religion in ways she never had before and exposure to God, faith and a life of servitude observed in close quarters gives her new insight.

Jenny seems to have a privileged upbringing with a stable family and no experience with some of the lifestyles she encounters in Poplar. That leads her to contemplate them, and she’s especially fascinated by the prostitutes.

Meeting Molly gives her the chance to view that life and she spends several chapters on Molly’s story, how she got from Ireland to England and her introduction into the sex trade, including a graphic sex scene in a brothel.

Like life, some stories end happily, some sadly, and in some cases Worth never knew what happened to the people. Some stories are hard to read, some fill you with warmth. All are part of the same story — Worth’s story of her experiences dealing with birth and life in Poplar.

To quote Sister Monica Joan quoting Keats, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” and there is a beauty to Worth’s memoir, all the stories woven together.


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