A Continued Conversation About Memoir, Voice, and Authenticity
Since the rip-roaring success of my review of Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times (What? You haven’t read it? That’s ok, look here), I decided that the best follow-up was to continue on the path Worth set before me and see if my feelings from the first book continued down the line.
Shadows of the Workhouse, the second in the midwife trilogy by former East End midwife Jennifer Worth, actually has almost nothing in it about midwifery, birth, or even Jennifer Worth. In the first book, Worth dabbled with narrative by going in and out of stories she was a part of—however these borrowed stories only added to the authenticity of Worth’s agenda, which was to bring awareness to midwifery and to show what heroic and selfless acts were done by the nuns and midwives living in the East End after WWII. The first Call the Midwife book was great—it educated, titillated and intrigued. It was one of those books that really made you want to go out there and read more about the field of midwifery.
While Worth continues her tour of education with Shadows of the Workhouse, it simply took a different turn than most readers would expect. As the title suggests, book two of the trilogy discusses workhouses and how they continued to haunt the East End even though they were either abandoned or converted to hospitals by the early part of the 20th century. Worth is diplomatic in how she describes the workhouses, saying that any attempt to help the poor and needy is good but that the workhouses went wrong, not because the idea itself was bad but because the people who ran the workhouses (a thankless job) were poorly paid, and so mostly only people who enjoyed the penal aspects of the job took it. When people who are looking to assert themselves aggressively are given a position that is unmanaged, they become unchallenged tyrants—very Dickensian. While Worth says she doesn’t want to be overly negative about the workhouses and offers a few “happy” stories about them, the overwhelming feeling the reader gets is that these workhouses are wretched places where the worst parts of humanity festers.
Viewers of the television show Call the Midwife from BBC will recognize a couple of the stories from this book, though they are given exponentially more space in Worth’s book than they are given in the show. Stories that took up almost 100 pages get reduced to one episode and I really had to question who was right—Worth, for giving them more space, or the show writers for condensing the narratives.
Chalk one up to the television writers—Worth’s stories dragged on here and as a reader, I found myself asking how Worth could humanly have even one iota of the information she has about these stories. In the case of one story, Worth has a passing relationship with a woman and then helps nurse her dying brother, piecing together from very obvious clues that they had an incestuous relationship. While Worth knew the sibling-couple when they were much older (and in the case of the brother, dying) the majority of the story she shares about them is from their childhoods, most of which was spent in the workhouses in completely separate quarters. Worth focused primarily on the brother but never tells us how she got all the details from him. Maybe he or his sister shared the story with Worth but that isn’t made clear and the whole time I was reading it, I was completely aware of how removed Worth was from the story. Maybe narratively the best decision she could have made was to suspend the first person narration for this book since it kept reminding me of her when I was engaged in a story she had no place in.
Don’t get me wrong—I liked the stories. I didn’t know much about the workhouses except that they existed and Dickens really hated them. I liked the information I got from Worth which seemed thorough and well researched; her attempt to stay neutral was appreciated, if unsuccessful. The workhouses became places of physical and psychological torture that kept the horrifically poor too tired, hungry, and depressed to effect any degree of positive change in their lives. Still, showing us their deprivation (especially with incest) became exploitative. I had to see a brother made so incapable of genuine human feeling and so obsessive with his sister, that they become lovers. I had to see a child so convinced her illegitimate (and noble) father was going to come for her that she began making up stories and eventually was driven half-mad by the people in charge—people who took pleasure in mentally breaking a child. Of course I felt bad for the vulnerable people, exposed and laid bare before my eyes, but as their stories had already been resolved (the workhouses are closed), I was essentially staring at really grotesque scars, and I began to feel very self-conscious about that staring.
Worth previously had been an empowering and strong voice, yet this book made me see her as a privileged woman taking on an easy cause—a cause that had already been fixed. She made me resent the workhouses; she made me uncomfortable that they had ever existed (actually, I felt similarly reading about the workhouses as I felt walking through Auschwitz—how did we let it get this bad?). Especially when I had to read about a story from the show that I was dreading reading about: the mother who went into the workhouse with five children and left without children. The children, all under ten, died after various intervals, many of them suffering from illness, malnutrition, and overwork. The woman had been forced to kill another baby before even entering the workhouse—how do we, as a society, allow such inhumane treatment of other humans?
Still, despite the meaningful (if impotent) rally against the workhouses, I found myself wondering, where is the midwifery? I bought a trilogy on the midwives of East End, and I’m hard-pressed to tell you about much in the way of births in that book. I have a vague inkling that one must have happened, but it is anonymous. This strong act of women-helping-women was abandoned.
Overall, Worth’s narrative choices did not serve her as well in this book, and it really should not have been marketed as a second book in a trilogy about midwives. Maybe it was the marketing that failed Worth, maybe it was her writing choices, or maybe it was a lack of babies and joy and empowerment. I left this book feeling down and guilty for crimes I never committed, and I couldn’t wait to get to book three to see if it was happier, or at least had more bouncing babies in it to counteract the extreme poverty, desperate hunger, and sense of hopeless stasis.
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.