Jennifer Worth states in her introduction that she wrote this book in response to an article bemoaning the dearth of midwives in literature. An interesting claim, since in my perception, midwives are everywhere in literature. If you are writing a book with a historical setting and you want a female character with professional skills, you have few other options. Worth and I must not read the same books.
Worth has also said that her books were intended to be the midwives’ version of James Herriot, and his influence is clear in the episodic structure of her memoir, relating her experiences as a nurse in London’s poor East End in the 1950s. Her telling is reserved, focusing on the stories of people around her and the ways childbirth has changed over the past hundred years. She shares her experiences but little of her feelings, and since the episodes seem to be organized more topically than chronologically, reading the book feels much more like having an older person tell you stories than vicariously experiencing them with her.
Worth does have interesting stories, which are mostly bite-sized and make for easy reading. As an apparently typical young middle-class Englishwoman working in an impoverished area, she was thrown well outside her comfort zone, and that tension is at the heart of the book. To a modern reader, her success at overcoming her prejudices is mixed. She is able to find compassion for her patients and respect for her fellow midwives, including those whose backgrounds are very different from hers; I especially like the way she writes about Sister Evangelina, who never did seem to like the author much (real life doesn’t always have those bonding moments you find in fiction), but of whom Worth writes with insight and admiration nonetheless.
On the other hand, there are some unfortunate passages. Worth hasn’t quite shaken the 1950s attitude about domestic violence; she tends to exoticize anyone who is not English (even an Irish girl is Other in her mind, which is sad but amusing to me as an American reader); and at times unfortunate attitudes about class still come out. For instance, take this passage about an East End man, someone she knew and whose babies she delivered:
“He cut loose, and went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. It is doubtful if he had the faintest idea of what he was doing, as foreign affairs rarely penetrated the consciousness of working people in the 1930s. Political idealism could have played no part in it and whether he fought for the Republicans or the Royalists would have been immaterial. All he wanted was youthful adventure, and a war in a remote and romantic country was just the stuff.”
He was poor, and poor people didn’t follow the news, therefore even when he went abroad to war (which choice, presumably, already set him apart from his neighbors), he couldn’t possibly have known the first thing about it? What?
Meanwhile, my difficulty with this book as entertainment is that Worth never quite decided on what tone to adopt. Some of the stories are heartwarming, others tragic, and what feels like light reading is liable to be interrupted by a disgusting description of someone’s hygiene habits or the progress of a disease. Of course all good books portray ups and downs, but this one gave me whiplash.
That said, many people have loved this book, enough that it was made into a TV series (which, based on the first few episodes, is a bit sentimental but largely avoids the problems of the memoir). If nothing else, Worth works hard to recreate the time and place in which she worked, and her stories kept my interest.