Ask an agent about publishing a memoir in today’s literary market and don’t be surprised if the response is less than encouraging. When thinking about memoir and the publishing world, glut might be the first word that comes to mind. Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion today, not everyone has a book length story in them. And not every celebrity needs to have a memoir ghost written for them before they hit 25.
Still, just because there’s a glut, doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good ones out there. We just may have to look for them. And Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife trilogy is one worth looking for. Published (and republished) from 2002 until 2013, the books chronicle Worth’s life as a midwife in post World War II London.
A 22-year-old Worth has just joined the midwives at Nonnatus House, a convent in the East End. She thought she was going to work at a small hospital, and was surprised to find herself at the doors of a nunnery, instead. The book opens with her questioning that choice: “Why did I ever start this? I must have been mad! There were dozens of other things I could have been—a model, air hostess, or a ship’s stewardess. The ideas run through my head, all glamorous, highly paid jobs. Only an idiot would choose to be a nurse. And now a midwife…”
Of course, her questions come to mind as she is riding her bike through London at 2:30AM in the cold on the way to a birth in more often than not, grim conditions. Her bike ride back, however, is filled with very different thoughts: “A dockyard is really not a glamorous place, but to a young girl with only three hours sleep on twenty-four hours of work, after the quiet thrill of a safe delivery of a healthy baby, it is intoxicating. I don’t even feel tired.”
At this point in the first book, I was a little worried. One tale of childbirth—harrowing and graphic as it may be—is interesting. A couple more would be fine, but a combined 900 pages of Worth cycling to patients and delivering babies? Would that be a bit much?
It was a needless fear as it turns out, perhaps primarily because of the reason Worth decided to write the books. She reports that in 1998 she read Terri Coates’ article “Impressions of a Midwife in Literature” and was dismayed by the article’s conclusion: “Midwives are virtually non-existent in literature”. Worth wondered “Why, in heaven’s name? Fictional doctors grace the pages of books in droves, scattering pearls of wisdom as they pass. Nurses, good and bad, are by no means absent. But midwives? Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine?… Terri Coates finished her article with a lament for the neglect of such an important profession. I read her words, accepted the challenge, and took up my pen.”
A large part of what makes this memoir series work is that the stories are not just about Jennifer. It’s about the people living in the post WWII bombed-out housing, such as it was, in the docklands and the tough, sometimes tragic, oftentimes comical people who lived there; patients, their families and neighbors, the nuns at the convent, other midwives. Worth’s descriptions and dialogue (which at times may take liberty with memory and accuracy, but all the better for the telling) will at times make you cringe in horror and sympathy, and at others, make you laugh out loud. Indeed, Worth has the knack of storytelling, through careful observation and keen description, nailed.
Consider her use of language. In the second book, a court case calls costers (street sellers) as witnesses. One of them, nicknamed Cakey (because his last name is Crumb) begins his testimony: “I ‘as me own cock sparrer, an’ sells in ve part its” and continues “When I tells me carvin’ knife wot I seen, she calls me an ‘oly friar, an’ says she’ll land me one on me north and south if I calls Sister Monica Joan tealeaf…” After which the judge comments, “I think I am going to need an interpreter”.
These three books are also the story of the city of London and how it changed from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. From changes in housing conditions, to progress in medicine and in law, to the people of the docklands themselves, history makes itself felt throughout these stories like the chill (and terribly polluted) London fog.
In the first book, Worth’s voice comes through—whether she is telling one of her own stories or the story of others. Like Mary—a young girl forced into prostitution who becomes pregnant and then goes mad when she is deemed unfit and her child is taken from her. Or the story of Len and Conchita Warren, a couple with 24 children—you read that right, 24 children—whose marriage appears to work very well, no doubt in part because Len speaks only English and Conchita speaks only Spanish.
By the third book, Worth almost disappears from the stories. The stories of her friends, acquaintances, and patients often completely overtake the book. These are frequently longer stories, sometimes spanning multiple chapters and multiple decades. It’s easy to forget that Worth is even there; it’s easier to get lost in the families devastated by consumption or to be absorbed into the lives of children toiling in the devastating, heartbreaking workhouses.
The book covers proclaim “Now a PBS Series” and “Companion to the PBS Series”. I’ll confess I haven’t watched the series, but in some ways, I can see how these books would translate well to the small screen. The episodic feel of many sections, and the fact that the chapter titled “Stranger than Fiction” actually lives up to that title doesn’t hurt, either. Or take the story of Chummy— a midwife who is nearly arrested for running a police officer over with her bike and a year later ends up marrying him—it just sounds like the subplot of a romantic comedy. Still, the writing is so rich, it’s a pleasure to read, and I wouldn’t recommend eschewing the books for the televised versions of Worth’s memoirs.
Characters and stories aside, the books would be hopelessly incomplete without the detailed background and the historical accuracy. The sections on prostitution (book one) or the chapters on the workhouse and the Poor Law Act of 1834 (book two), for example, are not pretty subjects, but they are critically important to the overall message of the book. Indeed, the chapter on the Contagious Diseases (Women) Act of 1864 (book three) is not easy to forget, as much as one might like. The act gave the spy police “the power to arrest on suspicious only any woman found alone in the streets who they thought might be soliciting, confine her in a cell and call a doctor to examine her vaginally for evidence of venereal disease (Josephine Butler called this ‘surgical rape’)”.
Without such critical medical and social history, the books would still have interesting characters and storylines, but they wouldn’t demonstrate quite so clearly why Worth had to write the books in the first place. As Worth notes, “A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all. Why then does she remain a shadowy figure, hidden behind the delivery room door?”