Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife (2007)

I heard of this book some time before getting pregnant, so this has nothing to do with “now how am I going to scare myself away with gore details of birth and pregnancy gone wrong?”, but of course, I wasn’t quite so motivated to finish the book once I got the good news.

Truth be said, I’d heard of the BBC series before buying the book, and I’d watched the first episode on Youtube which was awesome. But I didn’t feel like buying the DVD because it was expensive and I figured that nobody else in the family would love to watch something so emotional and tearful and graphic and… yes, a little bit cheesy, with me, so I’d better get the memoir that inspired the series.

Oh-hum, doesn’t it look like the worst case scenario of impulse purchase for my growing TBR pile?

What I got really is a memoir of a young nurse who started her midwife career in the London East End in the 1950s. I’m so grateful I’m not a pregnant woman living in the East End in the 1950s. Appalling poverty and dire hygienic conditions, overcrowded tenement flats with families of 8 or 10 children. Bombed-out ruins, prostitution. And of course, home births without running water or antibiotics. If you’re not bracing yourself by now, you’re a hero.

But you needn’t be. It’s not really such a harrowing read, you see (even for a pregnant woman), because there’s so much distance to the circumstances she describes that it feels exotic, and more disturbingly, it seems that poverty was exotic to Worth when she first encountered it– there’s a social bias in the way she describes “those” women that sometimes feels weird. Anyway, the book is full of good feelings, and there’s a lot of romanticizing the past. The nurses are all such perfect angels, and the most disturbing facts of the day, like domestic violence or the fact that women were going from pregnancy to pregnancy without much of a choice are often glossed over (under the pretext of “no judging).

The start is powerful, but then it loses its breath because it’s more a series of anecdotes without much of a narrative arch. The real reasons why Worth chose this career given her previously rather sheltered life are only alluded to: she is clearly reluctant to talk about herself, unless it is to show how she found her faith watching the nuns’ dedication to midwifery.

Clearly, the show looks better. It’s a credit to the BBC scenarists that they could retain all the interesting juice out of these stories and concentrate them into a great show. It’s not that often that I’ll tell you to go and watch TV over taking a book, isn’t it?

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2 thoughts on “Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife (2007)

  1. I was very interested in your review of this book. Everything that you wrote is what I thought during and after reading the book. I’ll try the tv series, since you think it is better. I also rarely if ever like the movies or series better than the book, but I’m happy to make an exception. This writer had such a unique experience, and I just do not think her writing does it justice. I do not think this is the fault of her writing style and ability, but as you pointed out, maybe the problem lies with her keeping herself off the page–withholding herself from the story.

  2. Pingback: The one for comfort and contentment | Smithereens

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