When nurse Jenny Lee was assigned to the Nonnatus House in the East End of London to become a midwife, she thought she would be in a private hospital. Instead, she was greeted at the door by a nun, Sister Monica Joan, who proceeded to take her into the kitchen where they devoured an entire cake. The cook, Mrs. B, had baked the cake for the convent residents, both nuns and nurses. Sister Monica Joan’s behavior infuriated the dour Sister Evangeline, whose nose starts to drip whenever she is angered – or bested by the eccentric Sister Monica Joan.
So begins author Jennifer Worth’s memoir of her life as a midwife amongst the poor in the 1950′s.
The Midwife made me laugh and it made me cry, it made me cringe and it left me grateful as I rode along with Jenny Lee on her bicycle, through streets littered with the wastes of poverty and war, up tenement steps and past acres of laundry hanging to dry while administering to the women of East London.
This memoir is filled with stories of strife and stories of love. I couldn’t help but reflect on how life was for these women living in buildings long ago condemned at the same time I was growing up, a child of the 1950′s.
The stories are graphic as Worth takes us into the homes and lives of the women who live there and of their medical care.
There is the Christmas labor of Betsy Smith as a holiday celebration goes on in rooms of her home.
Forty-six year old Brenda, whose previous babies had died because of the difficulty of labor for a woman plagued with rickets, is compelling. At forty-six, Brenda, whose husband had died in the war, remarried and found herself pregnant again. England’s new health care system allowed for her to be hospitalized and for her to have a Caesarian – and the live birth of her daughter, Grace Miracle.
The touching story of Concita and Len Warren, an unlikely couple with 23 children when we first meet them, is tender and lovely and horrific at the same time. You must read the book to know their whole story, but how Concita comes into her 25 labor, brought about by a fall while outside had me gasping for breath in my cozy suburban home. A child of the 1950′s living outside the City of Chicago, I certainly knew about smog, but the impact smog had on those immediately effected was something I hadn’t truly realized until reading about Jenny Lee and how close to impossible it was for her to get but a few miles to the Warren’s house in the smog. With a police bicycle escort, both in front and behind her own bike, it took an inordinate amount of time to get to the house and made it difficult for a team of doctors to get there as well as a premature birth takes place.
Then, there are the stories of the nuns and the nurses at Nonnatus House. The quirky, senile, and sometimes mean Sister Monica Joan. Her nemesis, Sister Evangeline, who surprises Jenny with how well she connects with the Cockney patients they tend to. It is the nurses who give Jenny the courage to stay in the convent, and who provide some comic relief to the atmosphere around them. I must mention the handyman, Fred, whose dubious ways of making a living are overlooked and sometimes abetted by the nuns, as they carry out their mission as midwives to the women of London.
I first read about The Midwife early this year on Rachel’s blog, Book Snob. As her reviews always are, this one was provocative and I wrote the title and author on my list of books to be read. I finally hunted it down at the library and have been engrossed in its pages for the past several days. Thank you, Rachel. It is every bit as wonderful a read as you suggested it was.
(I do hope that Masterpiece Theater will run the BBC series, Call the Midwife, based on this book. The photo is from the series. )