May 3, 2009
The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth
Finished on 4/28/09
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
An unforgettable story of the joy of motherhood, the bravery of a community, and the hope of one extraordinary woman
At the age of twenty-two, Jennifer Worth leaves her comfortable home to move into a convent and become a midwife in post war London’s East End slums. The colorful characters she meets while delivering babies all over London—from the plucky, warm-hearted nuns with whom she lives to the woman with twenty-four children who can’t speak English to the prostitutes and dockers of the city’s seedier side—illuminate a fascinating time in history. Beautifully written and utterly moving, The Midwife will touch the hearts of anyone who is, and everyone who has, a mother.
About the author
Jennifer Worth trained as a nurse at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, England. She then moved to London to train as a midwife. She later became a staff nurse at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, and then ward sister at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in Euston. Music had always been her passion and in 1973 Jennifer left nursing in order to study music intensively. She gained the Licentiate of the London College of Music in 1974 and was awarded a fellowship ten years later. Mother of two daughters and grandmother of two; Jennifer lives in Hertfordshire with her husband Philip Worth.
I generally don't read a lot of nonfiction, but I sure do love memoirs, so I was happy to accept a review copy of The Midwife. I had a little bit of difficulty getting started, stumbling a bit through the introduction, but after that it was smooth sailing. The author has an engaging style and I was quickly transported to the streets of East London.
This is one of those books that must cause a bit of confusion for bookstore buyers and merchandisers. The subtitle indicates that it's a memoir. However, Barnes & Noble has it shelved in the medical history section. I'm not sure it's either. I think it falls more into the area of British history, as many of the anecdotes have more to do with life in London after World War II than with the art and science of delivering babies. Regardless of its classification, it's a lovely story of a young woman living amongst a group of kind-hearted nuns, learning the ropes of midwifery.
On the joy of a delivery:
I am about ready to leave. It has been a long day and night, but a profound sense of fulfilment and satisfaction lighten my step and lift my heart. Muriel and baby are both asleep as I creep out of the room. The good people downstairs offer me more tea, which again I decline as gracefully as I can, saying that breakfast will be waiting for me at Nonnatus House. I give instructions to call us if there seems to be any cause for worry, but say that I will be back again around lunch time, and again in the evening.
I entered the house in the rain and the dark. There had been a fever of excitement and anticipation, and the anxiety of a woman in labour, on the brink of bringing forth new life. I leave a calm, sleeping household, with the new soul in the midst, and step out into the morning sunlight.
I cycled through the dark deserted streets, the silent docks, past the locked gates, the empty ports. Now I cycle through bright early morning, the sun just rising over the river, the gates open or opening, men streaming through the streets, calling to each other; engines beginning to sound, the cranes to move; lorries turning in through the huge gates; the sounds of a ship as it moved. A dockyard is not really a glamorous places, but to a young girl with only three hours sleep on twenty-four hours work, after the quiet thrill of a safe delivery of a healthy baby, it is intoxicating. I don't even feel tired.
From large families (one delivery is of a woman's 25th child!) to rickets to interracial births to the horrors of the "workhouse," Worth entertains and enlightens her readers with anecdotes that help balance the story's grim poverty and hardships with stories imbued with her keen sense of humor:
A convent is essentially a female establishment. However, of necessity, the male of the species cannot be excluded entirely. Fred was the boiler-man and odd-jobber of Nonnatus House. He was typical of the Cockney of his day and age. Stunted growth, short bowed legs, powerful hairy arms, pugnacious, obstinate, resourceful; all these attributes were combined with endless chat and irrepressible good humour. His most striking characteristic was a spectacular squint. One eye was permanently directed north-east, whilst the other roved in a south-westerly direction. If you added to this the single yellow tooth jutting from his upper jaw, which he generally held over his lower lip and sucked, you would not say he was a beautiful specimen of manhood.
I noticed an occasional repetition to some of the stories, making me wonder if each chapter originated as an essay or column, later to be woven together in the form of a book. This is very minor quibble, as it really didn't distract from my enjoyment of the narrative.
The Midwife is much more than simply a memoir about a young woman's experiences in her new role as a midwife. It's a warm, engaging examination of life in a convent, life in London's post-war slums, and the friendships that grow between the nuns, midwives and mothers-to-be. If you enjoy any sort of medical narrative or historical memoirs (such as Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes), you'll fall in love with Worth's richly evocative story. I certainly did.
Be sure to watch this wonderful video (from BookVideos.tv) of Jennifer Worth discussing her memoir. There are some marvelous black and white photographs included throughout the clip.