I’ve been conflicted about whether I should even mention a book I recently listened to. But I finally decided that others might appreciate being forewarned, as I wish I had been.
I have not watched the Call the Midwife series on PBS. I like period pieces, but I had the impression this would be something like a “birth story of the week.” Each birth is its own miracle—or tragedy if things go wrong. But I didn’t necessarily want to watch a show about births in the 1950s.
But when I saw the audiobook by the same name was in a “two books for one credit” sale for Audible, I decided to check it out.
As it turns out, the book is a memoir about the life of a midwife in the 1950s in London’s East End, based on Jennifer Worth’s experiences.
Jenny Lee, as she is known in the book, became a nurse and then a midwife in the 1950s. She worked with other midwives out of a convent though they were not Catholic. The East End of London was a poor area, with most of the men working at the docks. Though crime was common, the midwives were respected and untouched though they rode their bikes alone day and night.
In past millennia, women were helped in giving birth by neighbors or a woman who was a midwife by means of experience gained in helping with deliveries and not through formal training. Normally, such help was fine, unless there was a problem.
Infant and mothers’ deaths finally led to midwifery becoming more of a science. Births still took place at home most of the time. But midwives in the 1950s had more training and tools to handle problem situations.
Though all of Jenny’s clients were poor, they varied greatly. Some homes were cheerful and neat though bare; others were in terrible condition.
As you might expect with a book like this, a number of birth stories are shared, both the happy and the tragic ones. Jenny shares what happened in graphic clinical detail, so if such things make you squeamish, you might not enjoy this book. Or you might skip through portions.
But the book is not all birth stories. Jenny tells about the different nuns at the convent, one of whom was brilliant but whose mind was failing. She tells about some of her coworkers and friends.
In one lengthy section, Jenny tells of a teenager named Mary who ran away from an abusive stepfather in Ireland and ended up roaming the streets of London. Mary was fourteen and evidently either didn’t know about places like the YWCA, where she could find temporary shelter, or didn’t know how to find them.
One day while Mary was looking longingly in a bakery window, a handsome young man saw her and offered to buy her breakfast. He was very kind, and soon Mary’s story came out. The man told Mary his uncle owned a cafe where they had “the best entertainment in London.” Perhaps his uncle would give her a job running the coffee machine.
In her naivete, Mary thought this man was romantically interested in her. She went with him to his uncle’s cafe—which turned out to be a brothel.
I don’t have a problem with this story being part of the book, because these kinds of things happened—and still do today. Young people, particularly runaways or orphans who have no one to call for help, are either lured with promise of food and shelter or outright kidnapped. Then they are trapped in a system they can’t get out of.
What I did object to, however, was a graphic description of the “show” one of the dancers put on at the brothel. I was navigating across busy lanes of traffic when this part of the story came on the audiobook, so I couldn’t stop and fast forward. I didn’t have the presence of mind while watching several directions for oncoming cars to just turn the sound off.
The dancer’s act wasn’t told in an approving or tantalizing manner. It was meant to be shocking and disgusting (and it was). But it wasn’t needed. We already had a good idea what kind of place Mary was being taken to. Even if Worth felt the need to share what went on, she didn’t have to tell as much as she did as graphically as she did. I regret having those images planted in my mind.
I almost laid the book aside at that point. But then I figured that scene was probably the worst, and the rest would be better. And that turned out to be the case.
There were a few other smaller problems–a few bad words, a couple of bawdy crude references, mention of a mixed group swimming nude.
Jennifer wrote the book some fifty years after her experiences when she read an article by Terri Coates wishing that some midwife would “do for midwifery what James Herriot did for vets.” I think Jennifer could have achieved what Herriot did, but I think she missed the mark by including scenes like the one I mentioned. What was otherwise a great book was marred by these negatives.
But Jennifer’s book became a bestseller when it was reissued in 2007 after having been originally published in 2002. She wrote three more, and the Call the Midwife series began in 2012.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Nicola Barber. The narrator did a great job with the dialects. But she spoke almost in a whisper much of the time, making it hard to hear.