If you like the PBS series that this book is based on, you will love this book. Jenny Lee is from a middle class background, trained as a nurse. She wants to train as a midwife and takes a post at Nonnatus House, a home of Anglican nursing nuns that cared for the poor of the East End of London in the 1950s, after the war and the Blitz, when so much of that area had been destroyed. Many of the tenements had been condemned even before the war, but because of the shortage of housing after so much housing was destroyed in the bombings, families – sometimes 10-12 people – lived in two room tenement apartments in dilapidated buildings in dire need of repair or to be torn down. In the 1950s, there was often only one lavatory per floor of a tenement and all of the people had to share. Few still had communal lavatories in the yard that the entire building shared. This book chronicles the early years of Jennifer Worth’s tenure at Nonnatus House, delivering babies, learning about the people that lived in the area, learning about the experiences of the workhouses, learning how to understand cockney and also growing spiritually. So many of the stories in the first seasons of the PBS series are in this book, in much more detail – Mary, the young Irish prostitute; Molly, the young woman in an abusive marriage whose husband forces her to be “on the game”, her two young children hiding in filth and squalor in the apartment; Mrs. Jenkins, who was forced into the workhouse where her children all died and she still calls for them – they were all real people, those are all true stories.
I was a Downton Abbey devotee, and one Sunday evening, after Downton, PBS aired the first “Call the Midwife”. My aunt had volunteered at the Foundling Hospital in NYC in the 1950s and my mother was trained as a nurse in Queens, NY in the 1960s. Although Call the Midwife was set in a convent in London, England, I felt there was a connection to the many stories I had heard from my mother and my aunt over the years, and I was hooked. My mother and my aunt both watch the PBS series and we often call each other after an episode and have spent many afternoons having lunch or coffee and discussing the show and they do make comparisons to experiences that they had in both the orphanage and working in NYC hospitals.
I love the characters and what seems like a more simple lifestyle in the 1950s. I love the people of the East End – who have so little and yet are, for the most part, so happy and kind. I love the fashions and the way everyone dresses up all the time.
But what I think I react to most about both the show and the book is that it is about women. Women’s work, women’s lives, women’s hopes, women’s dreams, women’s bodies, women’s experiences. It’s very different from other shows in that men are not a big part of the show or book, it’s really about women. The book goes into – sometimes graphic – detail about a woman’s anatomy and it felt so liberating to read about these things we share and yet we would never discuss in polite conversation.
There is definitely both a religious and a political component to this book. Worth enters Nonnatus House as an agnostic and by the end of the book she feels peace when Sister Julienne tells her that she will pray for her and she finds herself revering the practices of the nuns and their prayers. Worth also makes statements about child slavery, sex slavery and explains how prior to the 1900s, most doctors did not see a need for prenatal care or training to deliver babies and as a result, many mothers and newborns died, their lives thought to be expendable.
My mother read these books in the summer of 2017 and kept telling me to read them, too. I kind of wish that I had read them then, when she did so that we could discuss them, but I found this first book in the series a welcome reprieve during the Christmas season when everyone seems so caught up in material things and so far away from the true meaning of the season. It was nice to escape to a world where materialism was absent.