Truth is always stranger than fiction goes the old saying. When I finished Jennifer Worth’s book, I realised the old cliché perfectly summed up the book for me. A memoir of Jennifer Worth’s work as a midwife, in the East London slums during the 1950s.
You could not invent some of the stories you will find in her book.
For example: Conchita, married happily to her English husband, for over 20 years, living in the East End, mother to 25 children. No: this is not a typo. I repeat: 25 children. Conchita met her husband while he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and escaped Spain, fleeing back to England with him. Once she was old enough they married, and then the babies began. As if all this were not incredible enough, the couple were devoted to each other and provided a happy family life for their tribe despite poverty and cramped living conditions. But wait! There’s more. The reason they got on so well was that she spoke not a word of English, and he not a word of Spanish! Even after all those years. Apparently some of the older children had learned Spanish from their Mum and acted as translators.
Jennifer Worth’s story reveals the dreadful conditions in 1950s London slums: no running water, inadequate sanitation, no home telephones (to call the midwife – you had to race to a callbox!) no domestic appliances, little or no work for women, huge families, and not much by way of birth control. The book doesn’t set out to be a social history of the area and the decade, but that’s the unavoidable backdrop. Hard to believe that her early life as a nurse, and young woman, unfolded in this milieu, and that she found the courage to deal with the harsh circumstances , and carry on working like a Trojan. These deplorable conditions were in one of the world’s greatest cities, just under 70 years ago. Hard to believe from the vantage point of our 21st century modern world.
Despite the grim social reality, Jennifer’s story is filled with memorable characters, especially the nuns with whom she lived. The Sisters of St Raymund Nonnatus provided midwifery services to the area, and also engaged lay nurses to help. The nurses lived in the convent building alongside the nuns. Meeting the aristocratic, semi-demented, cake-loving Sister Monica Joan is worth the price of the book alone.
Some of my readers may have seen the British television series of the same name. If you haven’t seen the programme, it’s worth giving it a try. Ditto the book – what a good, engrossing read. I see there are 2 if not 3 more titles in the Midwife series, and I’d love to read them all.