Strengths: Really interesting stories and very well written, in particular the characters.
Weaknesses: Occasionally a preachy tone.
Why I read it: I enjoyed the miniseries.
Pages: 320 (ebook)
Publisher: Merton Books
Setting: East End of London
Rating: 9 out of 10
I’d had this book on my radar for some time, but didn’t realise it had been made into a miniseries (that apparently eclipsed Downton Abbey in the UK) until it aired on Australian television. After watching the first two episodes, I was hooked on the adventures of Jenny, Chummy, Cynthia and Trixie (not to mention to adorable Sister Monica Joan).
The book is in some ways very similar to the miniseries – the television programme has retained the authenticity about 95%, which is amazing in my book! This is both good and bad if you’re watching the programme at the same time, because while you’re seeing the chapter of the book being played out faithfully, you also know what is going to happen!
If you’ve never seen the show, let me tell you why this story is so good. Jennifer Worth (or Jenny Lee as she is in the book) read that midwives were absent from literature, so decided to recount her own experiences as a midwife in London’s East End (Poplar to be specific) in the 1950s. She fictionalised some of the details, such as the order she worked with (Nonnatus House in the book, a group of nuns/midwives) and some of the characters (Cynthia is a real-life character, a good friend of Jenny’s). Worth has an incredible knack for telling funny, heart-breaking stories in a way that is interesting. Most chapters stand on their own, but a few stories go over several. You get the feeling that Worth really begins to hit her stride as the book continues. What’s amazing is that this is all true – from the woman with over 20 children, to the snatching of a baby.
While of course there is a lot on babies and births, Worth covers a lot more. She is the only author that I’ve read to fully describe ‘the workhouse’ and the horror that it meant to people. In an appendix, she also goes into great detail about the Cockney dialect and how difficult it is to put in written format. She also describes the descent into prostitution for young girls and the tenements of the East End.
Occasionally Worth comes across as a little holy or preachy, but the tone overall is one of making the best of what you’ve got. Worth wrote two more books in the ‘Midwife’ series – Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End in addition to In the Midst of Life, looking at end of life care. I’ll be reading all of them as I find this kind of social and medical history fascinating.