Book Review: Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth

Have you seen the movie Julie & Julia? There’s a scene where Julie Powell says of Julia Child, “I’m dying to meet her. I would like to be a bridesmaid in her wedding in 1946. I realize that would take an inexplicable episode of time travel, but that is the sort of thing I think about.”

Have you seen the television series Call the Midwife? The above quote from Julie Powell is how I (Helen) feel about that show. But not only would it take an inexplicable episode of time travel for me to transport back to the world of midwifery in 1950s London to be friends with Jenny, Chummy, Cynthia and Trixie, it would take in inexplicable overcoming of my squeamishness around blood and needles, which I think is actually less likely than time travel.

If you haven’t seen the series Call the Midwife, check it out! The first two seasons are available on Netflix, and the third season is currently airing on the BBC in the UK. It will run in North America in the Spring of this year, on PBS. Telling the tale of a group of young midwives working with nuns in London’s East End, the show is heart-warming, very well produced, and based on the autobiography of Jennifer Worth, or Jenny Lee, as she is known in the show. Here’s the trailer for the first season:

Michael and I started watching Call the Midwife in late December, and when I found out it was based on an autobiography, I ordered it from the library. Reading this book comes at an interesting time, as I’ve also read Half the Sky this month, a book about the effects of discrimination towards women, and how ending that discrimination would be completely transformational for the entire world. One of the topics addressed in Half the Sky is the lack-lustrous care (or complete lack of care) women receive throughout their pregnancies and in child-birth in many parts of the world. We know little of this in the West today, particularly because since women have been allowed to vote, their lives and the lives of their children have taken on greater value in the eyes of politicians. In Call the Midwife, we see an era when the lives of young mothers were beginning to matter more and more, especially to the hard-working community midwives.

call-the-midwife-jennifer-worthAs Jennifer Worth (Worth is her married name) begins the story of her time serving as a midwife and district nurse in London’s East End, she says:

“Fictional doctors grace the pages of books in droves, scattering pearls of wisdom as they pass. Nurses, good and bad, are by no means absent. But midwives? Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine? Yet midwifery is the very stuff of drama. Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain, followed by joy or sometimes remorse. A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all. Why then does she remain a shadowy figure, hidden behind the delivery room door?”

Upon recognizing that midwives were largely ignored in the literary world, Worth sought to change this, documenting the fascinating experiences of her youth (she was twenty-two when she began her career as a midwife). Her chapters go back and forth between stories of some of the more unusual births she attended, to hilarious and heart-warming stories of the nuns she lived with in the East End. What touched me most, however, and what is perhaps left out of the television series Call the Midwife, is Jenny’s journey of faith throughout the book. She comes to Nonnatus House by accident, thinking it to be a private hospital (it was a convent), and though she initially scoffs at the religious life, by the close of the book, the nuns, their lifestyle, and their deep love for the inhabitants of London’s East End, have had a profound effect on her, pointing her to the Source of their love.

While this is a beautifully written book, I do have one caution. You may remember from the television series that Jenny meets a young woman named Mary, a girl who fled Ireland for London, and was lured into prostitution. Mary escapes her brothel when she discovers she is pregnant. While the show touches on her background lightly, Worth describes in great detail her conversations with Mary, which include her first experiences witnessing prostitution in London. Be warned that there are a few very graphic paragraphs; this is not done in a gratuitous way – Worth is simply describing the way a young girl was exposed to prostitution. Tales such as Mary’s were likely all too common in the East End, and a major aspect of Call the Midwife is Worth’s describing the shocking realities she was exposed to in her career as a midwife and nurse. Still, these paragraphs made me very uncomfortable, and I ended up skipping ahead until I could continue with a less graphic part of Mary’s story.

All in all, if you love the show Call the Midwife, I would heartily recommend the book on which it is based. If you have not seen the series, you have plenty of time to catch up before the third season begins in the Spring on PBS!

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Bittersweet, by Shauna Niequist | Michael & Helen Packard

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