Book review: Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth

Shadows of the Workhouse
By Jennifer Worth

9780753825853

Publication: 22/01/2009- London, United Kingdom
Paperback
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
★★★★★

Shadows of the Workhouse is the second title in the Call The Midwife Trilogy written by Jennifer Worth. In this follow up to Call the Midwife – which first published in June – Jennifer Worth, a midwife working in the East End of London in the 1950s, tells more stories about the people she encountered.

_______

After my experience reading Jennifer Worth’s first book, I was very much looking forward to this one and I must say that it didn’t disappoint me. Not a tiny bit! The paperback is available to buy from Amazon and bookshops but I bought myself the Kindle edition.

This sequel continues the story that was first started in Call The Midwife, and revolves around Jennifer’s memories of Nonnatus House, the nuns that lived and worked there, the people she met and treated, and life in the docklands in the 1950s.

The complete title of the book is Shadows of the Workhouse: The Drama of Life in Postwar London and I was eager to start reading it because I thought I’d find the same kind of stories I did in Call The Midwife. I didn’t. Shadows of the Workhouse is, in fact, a much darker book and much sadder as well. Jennifer’s writing remains the same – light and beautiful – but the stories she remembers throughout the pages are blue and truly heartbreaking.

In the book you’ll find Jane, who cleaned and helped out at Nonnatus House and was taken to the workhouse as a baby. Then there’s also Peggy and Frank’s story; their parents both died and they were left destitute. At the time, there was no other option for them but the workhouse. You’ll also meet Reverend Thornton-Appleby-Thorton, a missionary in Africa who visits the Nonnatus nuns. And then there’s Sister Monica Joan and her shoplifting habits… which, in the end, will take her to court.

Shadows of the Workhouse is definitely harder to read than its predecessor -the stories it explores are very tragic – but it also reveals the reality of workhouses and life as it truly was in postwar London.
Jennifer Worth’s memories  help the reader to learn a bit more about the history of England and how society was organised. If you like history, you’d love to read about these and you’ll learn while you read – which sounds very boring but it really isn’t?

The BBC TV series brought this title to the screen by mixing its stories with more pleasant ones – and not everything was presented as remembered by the author- so I’d definitely recommend giving these books a go, instead of just relying on the TV portrayal of her memories. Her stories give a fascinating insight into the resilience and spirit that enabled ordinary people to overcome their difficulties. It’s a powerful book,  based on powerful memories and written by a powerful author. It’s sad I only have one title left to read in the series…

 

Advertisements

Book Review: Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

In my last blog post, I made clear that I wanted my new site to be truthful, to reflect what goes through my mind on a day to day basis and I’ve been thinking there’s no better way to do it than by sharing my opinion and thoughts on the books I get to read. You see, working for the publishing industry has its perks…

Call The Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s
by Jennifer Worth

9780753823835

Publication date: 06/03/2008 – London, United Kingdom
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Imprint: Phoenix
★★★★★

The first time someone spoke to me about Call The Midwife, they were talking about the famous BBC series starring – among others – Jessica Raine, Miranda Hart, Helen George, Bryony Hannah and Laura Main and which focuses on a group of nurse midwives working in the East End of London in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It never occurred to me there could be a book behind the episodes and that I was actually watching the memories of a real midwife – Jennifer Worth – who did really work in the East End of London in the 1950s and 1960s. I should’ve known, honestly. It’s funny how many movies and series do come from books lately, right?

The series was charming and truly moving so it didn’t took me very long to know I desperately wanted to read the book.

Call the Midwife is the first book in a series, followed by Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End. They were all written by Jennifer Worth, who came from a sheltered background when she started working as a midwife in the Docklands in the 1950s.
London’s East End was then characterised by tight-knit family communities, strange characters and a lively social scene. It was into this world that the author entered, a world where the conditions in which many women gave birth were horrifying. Not only because of their impoverished surroundings and lack of medical assistance, but also because of what they were expected to endure. In her series of books, Worth recounts her time working as a midwife, witnessing brutality and tragedy but also encountering kindness and understanding. Attached to an order of nuns who had been working in the slums since the 1870s, the author tells the story not only of the women she treated, but also of the community of nuns and the nurses and midwifes with whom she trained.

———–

After watching the series, I didn’t know what to expect from Jennifer Worth’s first book but I was very much looking forward to reading it. And now that I’ve finished, I cannot wait to read the other two.
Jennifer Worth’s memories are so vivid and real that they take you back in time to the 1950s to one of the poorest areas in London. It is true that I’ve always liked reading memoirs and biographies but Worth’s words are somehow special. What I really like about the book is that the author doesn’t disguise reality and explains in detail how things were, even if they were horrid, obscene or repulsive. Her descriptions bring to life a long gone era, where family values where different, were people faced poverty, disease and painful situations and were women were the heroines of it all.

Some of the author’s memories were brought to the screen but some of them didn’t and that was interesting to discover. Her stories are beautifully told and some of them developed in a complete different way that what the BBC portrayed. Films / TV and books are not the same – nor they have to be – so it seems obvious that there was going to be differences between the way Worth’s stories are represented.

As I was devouring the pages, I felt nostalgic and I wished I could have seen it all. I wished I could speak Cockney and get to know the nuns who lived in Nonnatus House – a pseudonym, of course. I liked the way the author helped people and the way she admits she was not a saint – she describes her feelings of disgust, anger and revulsion towards some people she met, the mistakes she made along the way as well as the East Ender’s amazing tenacity, their traditions and their warmth and humour in the face of hardship.

The book is easy to enjoy and the descriptions didn’t seem long or boring – even though sometimes that’s the case of non-fiction titles. I actually found myself wanting to know what was going to happen to the characters – the nuns, the midwifes, the prostitutes, the expectant mothers – and discovering a beautiful side of Jennifer, one that is not understood in the TV series. Indeed, I really liked the way she speaks about the nuns, the way she first thought their religion is a joke and the way she realises – little by little – the important labour that these women were doing, helping people because they believed in something greater and felt love and peace within themselves.

Having said this, I truly recommend giving this little book a go, it kept me wanting to read even during rush hour and I already miss the characters and people I discovered between the pages. Thankfully, there’s still two more titles in the series.