Review: Vivien Horler
Call the Midwife – a true story of the East End in the 1950s; illustrated edition, by Jennifer Worth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
I have been an enthusiastic viewer of the TV series Call the Midwife, so when I came across this illustrated edition of the Jennifer Worth’s bestseller, originally published in 2002, I fell upon it with glad cries.
In fact it turns out Worth, known as Jenny Lee when she was a midwife in London’s Docklands, wrote three books, Call the Midwife, Shades of the Workhouse, (2005), and Farewell to the East End (2009). The trilogy has sold almost 2million copies worldwide.
Worth was born to a middle class in Essex in 1935, four years before the start of World War 2. She qualified as a nurse in 1957 and then trained as a midwife in the East End. In her 20s she went to Poplar to work with the nuns of the Anglican Community of St John the Divine, renamed Midwives of St Raymond Nonnatus in the books and TV series.
As fans of the series will know, Poplar in the 1950s was a poverty-stricken and grim area, with its residents still reeling from their experiences of being part of London’s much-bombed Docklands during the war. She writes: “Most people in London at that time didn’t know the East End – they pushed it aside. There was no law, no lighting, bedbugs and fleas. It was a hidden place, not written about at all.”
The series is of course based on the books, but this book doesn’t replicate the storified episodes of the show. In fact the series were so popular that the writers soon ran out of stories Worth tells, and had to make new ones up.
Some of the characters in it are recogniseable. There is Sister Jocelyn, on whom the character Sister Julienne in the series is based, the rather waspish co-midwife Trixie (who is not the major character and vamp of the series), Sister Evangelina, Sister Monica Joan, and Fred, the handyman, who is described by Worth as a true Cockney with “stunted growth, short bowed legs, powerful hairy arms, pugnacious, obstinate, resourceful; all these attributes were combined with endless chat and irrepressible good humour. His most striking characteristic was a spectacular squint…”
Sister Monica Joan’s high-flown English in the series was based on fact. Worth quotes her welcoming the new midwife to Nonnatus House for the first time: “The poles are diverging, my dear. Yes, and Mars and Venus are in alignment. You know what that means of course? Oh my dear, the static forces, the convergence of the fluid with the solid, the descent of the hexagon as it passes through the ether. This is a unique time to be alive. So exciting. The little angels clap their wings.”
Worth says astonishment robbed her of speech.
The Community of St John worked in the slums of the docklands among the poorest of the poor, and for half the 19th century they were the only reliable midwives in the area. They worked through epidemics of cholera, typhoid, polio and TB, and in the 20th century through two world wars, endured the bombing of the Docklands, delivering babies in air-raid shelters and underground stations.
By the time Worth arrived at Nonnatus House things were slowly improving in the East End, but not by much. Children suffered from rickets caused by a shortage of Vitamin D, London was frequently brought to a halt by appalling smogs, gangs prowled the streets, there was organised crime – think of the Kray twins – and prostitutes frequented many street corners.
Families were often enormous – Worth describes delivering babies 24 and 25 to a Spanish woman. Living conditions for many were appalling, often on the fifth floor of a tenement block with a single tap and lavatory on each floor, and of course, no lifts.
As the years went by after the war, Worth noticed the nature of the population beginning to change as immigrants from India and the West Indies made the East End their home. It was a time before the Pill, of course, and if having a baby out of wedlock was a scandal, a white girl giving birth to a black baby had virtually no option but to give the baby up.
Worth left the nuns in the early 1960s and went on to work as a staff nurse in various hospitals. She died in 2011, leaving her husband, two daughters and three grandchildren.
In 1998 Britain’s Midwives Journal published an article called “Impressions of the Midwife in Literature” by a woman called Terri Coates, who concluded after research that midwives were virtually non-existent in literature.
This was odd, thought Worth. “Midwifery is in itself the very stuff of drama and melodrama. Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain and suffering, followed by joy or tragedy and anguish. A midwife attends every birth… why then does she remain a shadowy figure?”
At the end of her article, Coates wrote: “Maybe there is a midwife somewhere who can do for midwifery that James Herrior did for veterinary practice.”
Worth read those words and took up the challenge.
I loved the result. Not only is this book a fascinating glimpse of a time not very long ago when life was utterly different, but it is peopled with astonishing real-life characters. And this particular volume is brilliantly illustrated with contemporary black-and-white photographs taken of people and scenes in London’s Docklands.
A treasure of a find.