Calling the Midwife’s Maker: Adaptation of Memoir, “Voice,” and Authenticity
Until recently, I didn’t believe that I liked memoir as a genre. It was related to autobiography—I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it was—but I was sure it was boring nonfiction. I had a class in grad school called “Inter-American Women’s Autobiography” and had a truly awesome communicator as a professor—she had a way of making you take medicine, enjoy it, and get something out of it that wasn’t on the label. I developed a taste for memoir because she showed me that it wasn’t dry or staid or encyclopedia-style writing, but it could be rich, colorful, imaginative, and decidedly nontraditional.
Call the Midwife works as a memoir, as a television show, and provides some alternative ways to consider how reality can be re-invented for the benefit of a given audience. I have an avid fascination with translating books into film or television (or anime, or graphic novels…). I think this could be residual resentment over the fact that two art teachers birthed me and yet I have no ability to draw the images I can conjure readily in my head—but I always want to see illustrations for the books I’m reading. Translation can be a funny thing though—we all get that feeling of overwhelming disappointment when someone is horribly cast (Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman? My life is coming to be defined by this poor casting choice) and that rushing sense of fulfillment when the casting is perfect (Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen “Pride & Prejudice” is, to me, beyond reproach). Why are these translations of books into visual mediums so tied to our emotions?
A lot of it has to do with voice and tone.
Which brings me back to memoir.
Memoir is a revolutionary genre for many women in many places, where silence was the accepted norm for them—where obedience was expected—writing your own life down in your own voice could be an act of rebellion so profound it could be life changing. I grew to appreciate this from the memoirs that we read in that class, dedicated to bringing voice to those oppressed by regimes (regimes that often used sexism as a weapon on an almost genocidal scale) and discussing whether or not those memoirs were “authentic.” We had many discussions about authenticity. What makes a voice that’s supposed to be speaking nonfiction “authentic”? If I tell you the memory I have of a goose biting me when I was little, and I say it with conviction, emotion, and a genuine connection to it, does it matter if my mother tells you it was a duck? Where do “facts” from a nonfiction narrative become irrelevant in place of a larger message? When I put my story of the goose next to my two stories about being thrown off horses (literal horses) and finding from these childhood experiences the ability to get back on the proverbial (and literal) saddle, does it matter if the goose is a goose or a duck? Does it matter to you if I say there was never a goose, only the horses? Isn’t the lesson the important thing? Now, if the horses are real but the goose isn’t, am I still telling you a (micro) memoir?
Here is where memoir can become really tricky. I’d like to discuss Call the Midwife in terms of Jennifer Worth’s authentic voice.
Worth’s opening to the book tells us transparently that someone put a call to action out in the world for midwives to tell their story and she felt compelled, as a former district midwife, to tell her story of working in London’s East End as a midwife after WWII. Worth’s memoirs (Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, Farewell to the East End, and a later published In the Midst of Life) center around matriarchal health systems in place in London, nurse and midwife run district practices that had secular and religious workers (Worth worked with nuns) to provide affordable and effective health care. This is, in theory, the perfect discussion for women’s healthcare in a pro-female environment: the women of the district are poor and uneducated, often living in slums and can rarely afford hospital care (but the health acts of London make it possible for those who require it to get it free of charge); the midwives are the center of all the birthing with extended antenatal and postnatal care mandatory for mothers, home visits for those who have just given birth, and home delivery a standard procedure where doctors are polite observers (Worth noted that since every doctor was required to be trained by a district midwife, the doctors—at least in the East End—respected the superior knowledge of the midwives).
This was my fantasy world: I am a Business-of-Being-Born-watching, pro-Universal-Health-Care, pro-Women’s-Health, pro-birth-control, pro-women-helping-women hippie. Bring on the midwives baby (oh wait, they’re British? And I’m an Anglophile? Go on…)! If the subject of non-intervention birth is of interest and you haven’t seen Ricki Lake’s The Business of Being Born, I highly suggest it as a companion film to Call the Midwife (the show or the novel). First of all, Call the Midwife shows the last great era of the midwife, not too long after, women were ushered into hospitals even for routine births, doctors presided over maternal care even though most births do not require medical intervention, and birthing became a cash cow for hospitals—here’s your anesthetic, your Caesarian, your episiotomy.
Worth was about my age when she was a district midwife in the East End. The East End was all docklands and slums and Worth, as a middle class woman, was a bit shell-shocked by the conditions when she was there, but also came to embrace the native Cockneys as loving, rugged survivors who were dedicated to their families and the hardest working people she ever met. She was helping families who lived in desperate poverty—one room with no attached bathroom was the only space for families with five or more children. Worth’s stories show exceptional female camaraderie—the nurses and the nuns work exceptionally closely despite the occasional disagreement and the clearly distinct lifestyles; the nurses have a deep bond despite varied social backgrounds and differing long term goals; the workers of Nonnatus house (a pseudonym for the real convent where Worth worked) have a loving, protective, and nurturing bond with the people they administer care to and, in general, there is an epic tone of respect that is indicative of how women should always behave with one another.
Call the Midwife is a moving read—having devoured all existing seasons of the show, I recognized many stories (and was surprised at how the producers adapted some and invented others). The show is truly well done—another BBC period masterpiece like Downtown Abbey—and it has a young Jenny Lee (Worth’s maiden name) cast while an older Jenny Worth (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) sagely narrates the story. For some reason, Redgrave was in my head while I was reading, and I couldn’t help but realize how much of Jenny Lee’s story was secondhand. In Nonnatus House there are four midwives: Jenny, Trixie, Cynthia, and Chummy. There are also a handful of nuns: Sister Monica Joan, Sister Evangelina, Sister Bernadette, and Sister Julienne (among a few others here and there). Jenny would only, reasonably, be able to tell us what happened with her births—and there would be plenty (the nurses handled hundreds of births a year personally). In the television show Call the Midwife, you get roughly one normal, uneventful birth to every four irregular and fantastic births (some wondrous and some gory). Now, if Jenny was talking regularly with her friends (and we can assume she was) she would know their stories, but not enough to be able to set the scene the way she does. She can tell you the layout of the houses she has never even been in, what people she did not treat were wearing and the exact dialogue of the birthing room. While I was reading, I forgot that Jenny couldn’t possibly know this information because while immersed in a narrative, you adopt the voice of storyteller—adopting a first person narrative that is functioning as a third, taking on the literary “eyes of God,” and you forget that you couldn’t know this story in the first place. But the show makes that really clear—Vanessa Redgrave is narrating whole sections of the story that young Jenny is never physically a part of and that missing piece is glaringly obvious.
Don’t get me wrong, this book is wonderful and I find Worth’s writing likable, fluid and, most importantly, in touch with her intentions on a primal level. Worth never forgets that she is writing to shed light on the bravery, hard work, and selflessness of these amazing women. Amazing women that time has lost—we simply don’t have district midwives anymore and Nonnatus House doesn’t assist at local births in the new millennium. Worth gives us an authentic story; who cares if she wasn’t there for every individual birth? Who cares if every midwife wasn’t a real person—interviews suggest that Cynthia may be a real person but that Chummy wasn’t real and neither was the epic Sister Monica Joan (according to one of the nuns that actually worked with Jenny Worth). Does that mean that all that Chummy brings to the table—triumph over adversity and a stiff upper lip at all times—isn’t valid? If Sister Monica Joan’s senility that tempers her elegant but cutting temper isn’t real, is the sympathy for age and illness any less meaningful? If Jenny’s stories and Cynthia’s and Trixie’s are real, is that dose high enough to overlook the fabrications?
Memoir can be many things and Call the Midwife is all of them. I know that there are actual inconsistencies in Worth’s narrative but I don’t care; the authenticity of this story—the beauty of exposing what otherwise would have been lost to time—is staggering and truly deserves a read.
Jennifer Worth was a district midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s, and later a hospice nurse. After retiring from nursing she went on to become an accomplished musician. She wrote four books about her nursing experiences—Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, and Farewell to the East End (which have all been adapted to the popular BBC show) and In the Midst of Life, which was about her time as a hospice nurse. Worth died from cancer in 2011 before the airing of Call the Midwife on BBC. The first episode was dedicated to her memory.