Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,
Last fall I discovered a great new TV series on PBS that came to us from the BBC: Call The Midwife (read my review of the show HERE).
I noticed that the series was based on a book with the same title by Jennifer Worth, so I gave myself a Christmas present and bought three of her books. One was available on Amazon, but all three could be purchased from The Book Depository in England -- more convenient to buy them all at the same time, and they offer free shipping, even to us louts across the pond.
I've read all three memoirs now and hereby pronounce myself a Jennifer Worth fan.
The first book is Call The Midwife. Young nurse/midwife Jenny lands at a convent in London's East End during the 1950s, where she works with the nuns who have offered midwifery services for many years to the women of the East End at no cost. Three other young nurses who are not nuns also are posted there. Worth tells one story after another about the babies she delivers, the families she meets, and the nuns themselves, and how she came to admire their hard work.
Most women in England had their babies at home during this time and were terrified of going to a hospital (hospitals were thought to be unsafe by the general populace and many were former workhouses; the specter of the workhouse still had the power to terrorize people). So Jenny and her colleagues travel from one house to another. One place might be a fairly comfortable dwelling, while the next might house 10 or 12 family members in three small rooms.
I was quite shocked to learn that people were still living in World War II bombsites during the '50s. Even though the places had been condemned years before, England's critical housing shortage remained and forced many to take lodgings wherever they could get them.
The descriptions of the births are interesting, too. Medical personnel believed at the time that women should lie on their left sides while giving birth. Enemas were always administered to the mother. And I finally learned what the "lying in" period means. I've seen this term many times and always wondered about it. It meant that the pregnant woman was tucked into bed as the time to give birth approached, and then stayed in bed after the birth, resting and bonding with her newborn. Relatives and neighbors brought meals and took care of older children. For a woman who might have a dozen children or more, this lying in was the only rest she ever got.
The second book, Shadows of the Workhouse, is quite different from Call The Midwife. Rather than taking us from one new mother to the next, Worth divides the book into three sections.
"Workhouse Children" provides a history of the workhouses, which were as bad as Dickens made them out to be in his fiction, and focuses on three adults who had grown up in the workhouse. Their stories are sad, and amazing. I'm surprised that anyone survived the workhouse. "The Trial of Sister Monica Joan" is about an elderly nun accused of shoplifting. The translation of Cockney slang provided during the trial is a hoot. In "The Old Soldier," young nurse Jenny forms a relationship with elderly Joseph Collett, who needs care for ulcers on his legs. As Jenny takes care of Joe, they become close friends. Joe Collett's story is also a sad one.
The third book, Farewell to the East End, has more stories about families and birth, but also provides a lot of information about tuberculosis, a scourge that most of us today don't understand. In the not-so-distant past, however, TB could decimate an entire family. In an especially interesting recollection in the book, Chummy -- a young nurse/midwife -- tucks her skirt into her bloomers and climbs a rope ladder to reach a woman in need on a ship. Worth also describes how the East End ended. The slums were razed; people were transported to new housing, whether they wanted to go or not; and the nuns were no longer needed there.
These memoirs are not for the squeamish (Maggie), but I found them fascinating because of the medical information and because of the stories of how people lived in England not so very long before I was born. Many of Worth's recollections are sad, but just as many are filled with joy and humor. Her style is simple, clean, and focused -- a style I seek in my stories about the nursing home.
All three of these books earn The Janie Junebug Seal of Approval.
Infinities of love,