Book Review: The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

For every episode of fascinating but technical medical reporting (I learned a lot about birthin' babies from this book), there's a recollection or reflection that achieves a kind of literary transcendence.

London's East End, the 1950s, winter. A thick yellow smog keeps the local doctors busy treating respiratory problems; elderly folks die by the hundreds. But Conchita Warren, pregnant for the 25th (yes, the 25th) time, has suffered a fall and gone into labor two months early.

The young midwife who has been providing Conchita's prenatal care receives the late-night call, and bicycles through the soupy cloud of pollution to tend to her charge. Jenny is an experienced midwife by now, but has never had to deal with a premature birth. The mother is very sick; the baby is born successfully, tiny but alive. Finally doctors arrive and order the baby transferred to hospital, but Conchita won't let go of the minute infant. No amount of pressure can pry her hand off it, and her husband, Len, takes her side.

This is but one of many dramatic episodes ("adventures" wouldn't be an inaccurate term) recounted by Jennifer Worth in her absorbing, eye-opening, wise, touching, and sometimes suspenseful memoir of life as a nurse-midwife in the poor parts of London in the postwar years. Times were tough and crime always threatened, but unlike policemen, who patrolled in pairs for "mutual protection… we nurses and midwives are always alone, on foot or bicycle. We would never be touched. So deep is the respect, the reverence, of the roughest, toughest docker for the district midwives that we can go anywhere alone, day or night, without fear."

And they had to. Jenny visits bombed-out buildings, condemned many years before but still inhabited by the dirt-poor. She encounters women who've been abused by husbands, by pimps, and by the infamous workhouses, and ravaged by illnesses ranging from rickets to eclampsia. Yet moments of amazing grace shed a different light on the human condition: a first-time father has an unexpected reaction to his new baby's suspiciously dark skin; a young boy befriends a clumsy, socially inept midwife, gallantly defending her against ridicule; Jennifer discerns the startling secret to Conchita and Len's everlasting, unconditional love. And as the young agnostic grows to respect the nuns who run the midwives' practice, she inches towards a religious revelation.

Ms. Worth's prose is only workmanlike, but all her stories are interesting, and for every episode of fascinating but technical medical reporting (I learned a lot about birthin' babies from this book), there's a recollection or reflection that achieves a kind of literary transcendence. Of Mrs. Jenkins, a ragged old woman who magically appears in the street wherever a birth is about to occur, Ms. Worth writes:

She stepped over the edge of the big tin bath and sat down in the water with delight, splashing and giggling like a little girl. She picked up the flannel and sucked the water noisily, looking up at me with smiling eyes. The room was warm because I had stoked up the fire, and a cat strolled up and looked curiously over the edge of the bath. She splashed him in the face with a giggle, and he retreated, offended. The front door banged, and she looked up sharply. "Rosie, that you? Come 'ere, girl, an' look a' yer ol' mum. It's a rare sight."

But the footsteps went upstairs, and Rosie didn't come.

The nuns themselves are among the most interesting characters: ancient crazy-like-a-fox Sister Monica Joan; bustling, foul-mouthed Sister Evangelina; saintly Sister Julienne. Worth's exact recounting of dialogue, and her detailed descriptions of scenes that were only told to her by others (and decades ago at that), feel suspiciously detailed. But if she has recreated, it all feels apt; everything in this book is vividly believable, and often gripping.  Even the appendix on cockney dialect was no exception; I began to read it dutifully but finished it wishing for more. It will surely be appreciated by any American who's tried to fight through an episode of Eastenders.

A great success in England, this book deserves just as much appreciation on the west side of the pond. Jennifer Worth's tales of a half century ago lose nothing with transplantation to modern times; society really hasn't changed all that much. And they will resonate with anyone who ever had a heart.