If you have read my reviews of the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife, you will know how much I love the stories of London’s midwives that Jennifer Worth immortalised in her memoirs. I decided that it would not be a bad idea to read the first book from the series written by Jennifer Worth which inspired the television series, and in fact until recently was the foundation for most episodes.
I was truly impressed by the book, and not only because I thought it was fascinating, which I knew, judging by my love of the show, but because I was still just as amazed by the stories told inside of it as I am by the stories in the television show. I did not feel like I knew it all already, or that the book was not worth reading, even though many of the stories feature in the show itself. In fact, Worth’s writing really made the stories come to life within the pages, and I felt as if I was learning about the characters with brand new eyes. This book is a masterpiece in itself, completely separate from the series and I advise anybody who enjoys the show as I do, or even to you who have not seen it, to read this book if you want to experience a real emotional journey.
The story, if you don’t know, centres around Jenny Lee, a midwife who is sent to work at Nonnatus House, a convent which houses nuns which for decades have served the people of the East End of London as nurses and midwives. There, she lives and works alongside nuns such as the gentle Sister Julienne, the louder Sister Evangelina, the kind Sister Bernadette and the eccentric Sister Monica Joan, as well as other midwives like herself, Trixie, Cynthia and Chummy. In her memoirs, Jenny tells us about her life at the convent and outside of it, nursing and midwifery as a profession as well as the stories of individual patients which she actually served while working as a midwife in the 1950s. The names have been changed, but Jennifer Worth’s writing really brings the stories within the pages to life and leaves you with no doubt that the people were real and that she didn’t make anything up. Different topics include child neglect, mix-raced babies, expectant mothers with pre-eclampsia, premature babies, prostitutes of Cable Street, forced adoptions and the victims of poorhouses. Not only is Call the Midwife fascinating as a story, or set of stories, but it is also a great insight into life in the East End at the time, as Worth looked at various different social issues in her book.
With regards to the characters featuring in the book, I was surprised to find that the characters as described by Worth in the book are just as vivid as those in the television series. I am not much of a lover of autobiographies, and I had always expected, I am rather ashamed to admit, that the writers of the television series would have expanded on the characters’ personalities. In fact, I stand corrected. I can see now that the writers actually had a foolproof guide for when it came to creating the characters for the series. Trixie, Cynthia and Chummy were all life-like figures in the book, even if they do not feature as centrally as they do in the series, with none of their own stories, when they were mentioned, Worth described them fully and in detail. The same goes for the patients and other individuals that Worth described. I felt, while reading the book, as if I could envisage them all, even though I had not seen the first episodes of the series, and so had not seen their episodes.
Overall, I was surprised by Call the Midwife, as I did not expect it to be as detailed and comprehensive a piece of work as it is. It is so vivid and alive in its descriptions that I now fully understand how the series came to be as fantastic as I think it is – it had a flawless blueprint. Worth’s writing was perfect, and not only did I enjoy reading the stories which I had seen on television, but also felt like I learnt a lot about life in the East End at the time and its social issues, and about the history of nursing. Furthermore, keeping in with the trend of my crying in every episode of Call the Midwife, I am pleased to report that these memoirs also brought a tear (or two) to my eyes