I came to Call the Midwife, the first book in Jennifer Worth’s series of nursing memoirs set in post-WWII East End of London, in an ass-backwards way. I had seen the entire series as it aired on PBS, and then again as it was released on DVD, before I happened upon a copy of this first volume in a used bookstore. The show is remarkably faithful to the books, so all of the stories that are featured here I already knew. And I was still riveted by them.
Jennifer Worth, formerly nurse/midwife Jenny Lee, is an extremely engaging narrator. She looks back on her time as midwife in one of the poorest areas of London’s East End with grace and humility, and quite a bit of humor. As a midwife, she had unique exposure to a wide range of people, because she delivered all of their children. The effect of this is that while she’s telling her stories of delivering babies in the East End, she essentially paints a portrait of words about a very specific place in a very specific time in history. The dockworkers, the wives and children, the burgeoning NHS and medical standards, prostitution, the effects of the bombing of London, and the ramifications of the old workhouses, among many other things.
Also, she works with the nuns of the order of St. Nonnatus, an order of nuns who devote their lives to nursing/midwifery, and bringing modern medical standards to an area of women’s health that was traditionally ignored by doctors and other medical professionals. The nuns are one of my favorite things about Jenny’s story. The kind but firm Sister Julienne. The sweet but knowledgeable Sister Bernadette. The brassy Sister Evangelina, who is more at home among working class people than she is her own sisters. And of course, the elderly Sister Monica Joan, who is incredibly intelligent, ethereal, and increasingly senile.
It’s just lovely to see Jenny tell us her story, because we see in all of these experiences she has how she changes gradually into a kind, compassionate nurse who is more than capable of handling extremely tense situations. I also like how so much of her memoir actually focuses on her fellow nurses and her patients–it’s in the way that she talks about them that we can most clearly who she is as a person.
Plus, I also just really am obsessed with stories about pregnancy and babies being born, which this has in spades. I can’t wait to track down copies of the second two books in the series.
I will now confess, however, that I have not watched any of the episodes past Jessica Raine’s exit at the end of season three. She played Jenny Lee and she was my favorite, and I cried big fat salty tears when she left the show (although her elderly self, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave, still narrates it).