R Review of “CALL THE MIDWIFE, Jennifer Worth’s Memoir
Reaching the last page of this engrossing memoir is like walking away from a neighborhood where you have settled in and become part of people’s lives. Worth carefully stitches together her experiences as a midwife living in the 1950s with nuns who gave their lives to God and to child-bearing women in the poverty-stricken east side of London.
The reader rides with Jennie Lee on her bicycle through the neighborhoods and learns – in detail – what it was like and what she encountered. She also schools us on the details of her practice – the instruments she used, how babies were delivered then, the long hours she spent and the emotional involvement it took.
Having watched a number of “Call the Midwife” episodes produced for television by PBS – based on the book, of course – there were any number of “oh, that’s what it really meant” or “now I understand why that person reacted the way he or she did” – awakenings after plowing through the book. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was as simple and straightforward as the TV rendition would have you believe.
It would be wrong to say that the PBS version does the book a disservice. However, the depth of the characters and their motivations are clearly impossible to communicate in scenes that flicker past in rapid rotation. It took courage to attempt as ambitious a project this one and the television version does an excellent job of bringing Worth’s world back to life.
For instance, there were more shocks and surprises about babies that were born black – and one that might have been black. We get a picture of immigrants coming into the neighborhoods and repercussions in personal lives. It’s a very interesting part of history that is rarely explored. With the luxury of more time and space, the written version presents this issue in a way that explains the bigger picture.
There are also revelations that some of the glitzy, romantic scenes we see on the television screen weren’t based on the original book. (Surprise?) The relationship between Jennie Lee and Jimmy? Don’t look for it in the memoir. Chummy and her romance with the constable? Also, not to be found. Even the girls going out to a dance together -- if it happened, Worth wasn’t sharing. Some of it is “prettified” and probably has to be for the sake of keeping an audience on board.
The very dramatic kidnapping of a baby by a young woman Irish woman named Mary is powerful on-screen. Once again, the depth of Mary’s story is far more powerful in the book. The reader is given insights into her background and her relationship with Jennie Lee that television simply doesn’t have the time or structure to present.
Worth’s book is, indeed, a very well-written, page turner. It’s hard to say it’s “better“ than the television series. It comes down to simply being a different animal. Anyone who has enjoyed the television series should enjoy the book – and vice versa.