The story: This is a memoire about her time as a district midwife in London eastside in the 1950s and -60s.
My thoughts: I was introduced to this book, as I think a lot of people were, by watching the BBC series. I was also interested in the topic because my grandmothers were nurses in the 1950s and 1960. While London and Norway are two very different places to be nurses, I still assumes that some things would overlap and this book could help me understand a bit about what they had done when they were about my age.
This book is a series of vignettes that together paint a picture of the complex life in London’s east side. The book deals with class, of course, but there is an interesting gender-aspect to the book. Childbirth has a special place in most cultures, because that’s where the next generation comes from, and yet childbirth is also a topic of mystery and, in lack of a better word, taboo. I don’t mean taboo as in wrong, but taboo as in secretly. Childbirth is woman’s work and isn’t supposed to influence the larger society. Yet, it does.
“Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain, followed by joy or sometimes remorse.”
What I loved most about this book is how open it is about the complexity of childbirth and how children, or lack of children, will affect society. I loved learning more about how childbirth is dealt with in the East End, a social-cultural setting very different from my own background. I place where children happen, because that’s what happens.
“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer going to be tied to the cycle of endless babies; they were going to be themselves. With the Pill came what we now call the sexual revolution. Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”
I also found the religious aspect to the book interesting. Jennifer Worth works for a nunnery, who specialises in nursing and midwifery. Half of the midwifes (if not more) are nuns. This creates interesting reflections and discussions about religion and about how these women are giving themselves not just to God, but to help people who don’t have a lot of other options.
“Of course not,” she snapped sharply. “How can you love ignorant, brutish people whom you don’t even know? Can anyone love filth and squalor? Or lice and rats? Who can love aching weariness, and carry on working, in spite of it? One cannot love these things. One can only love God, and through His grace come to love His people.”
Jennifer Worth writes both warm and detached. She never talks down to the reader or the characters in her book, except her own arrogance and naivete. I can’t have been easy for a woman with middle class background, with a middle-class education and profession, to apply that profession in society where it was respected, but to necessarily understood. And while you must always view memories as flawed by person opinion, I did feel she created a believable East End in her writing.
“Now and then in life, love catches you unawares, illuminating the dark corners of your mind, and filling them with radiance. Once in awhile you are faced with a beauty and a joy that takes your soul, all unprepared, by assault.”