I’ve greatly enjoyed this series on PBS, but hadn’t thought about reading the books upon which they are based until my friend, Cynthia, advised me that they were even better than the show. I usually assume books to be much better than their film incarnations, if only because films must condense the story and often lose much of the subtlety and shading. However, in this case the films are so good that I couldn’t believe the books could be better. I was wrong.
In the early 1950s Worth, then Jennifer Lee, having trained as a nurse, was placed at an Anglican community of nuns to learn midwifery. The nuns belong to an order, which she calls St Raymund Nonnatus and their convent, Nonnatus House, in located in Poplar, a neighborhood in London’s East End. Together with the nuns and two other young midwives-in-training, Worth serves the vibrant but shockingly poor Cockney East-Enders, as a midwife but also on occasion as a district nurse.
Her stories of her fellow midwives and the characters she meets are funny and sad and enchanting. English has been known to treasure its eccentrics, but never did I imagine so many crowded into one small book. Worth gives them in all their glory, showing their faults and remarkable strengths, always describing them and their antics with dignity and respect.
I had not realised conditions were so bad in the East End during the 1950s. I knew that England, still recovering from the Second World War, struggled to find food and housing for its battered population, but I didn’t know that condemned tenements lingered on for decades due to the lack of alternate housing. Some of these densely populated tenements blocks only provided a single cold-water tap and lavatory for each level of flats. What with the docks and the railway terminus, the already-overcrowded East End had been targeted during the Blitz, leaving many to live in bombed-out buildings even during this period.
When I think of the prosperity I grew up in here in the U.S., I can now understand why my mother continued to send food parcels to her English friends throughout the 1950s. At the time, it didn’t make sense to me, conditioned as I was by my reading to think of England as a “green and pleasant land”.
When I teach memoir writing, I encourage writers to find the balance of narration and dramatic scenes that best serves their story. Worth succeeds brilliantly at this. She gives us just enough narration to understand the social (and sometimes political) context and then jumps right into the action. Each chapter is devoted to a different person, either a colleague or patient, except for a few instances when one or two more chapters are needed to finish the story. While it may seem organised like a picaresque novel, just a sequence of episodes, there is a narrative arc, which only becomes clear when you look at the book as a whole, culminating in Worth herself being profoundly changed.
The chapters fly by, so entertaining and assured is Worth’s voice. These vivid characters will stay with you. Worth wrote the book, she said, to capture a way of life that disappeared during the slum clearances of the 1960s. There is still poverty but no longer is it quite so dire. I ponder, however, the ways that the vibrant working class life she describes has changed. I of all people will not romanticise poverty, yet must allow that when I lived in neighborhoods of working class families and those on public assistance, I found much that was preferable to the prosperous neighborhood where I grew up.
What novels or memoirs have you read that have vivid characters, people whom you can’t forget?