When I first spoke to my editor about these books I said, will people get bored reading all three reviews? I was worried that all three reviews would be very similar. In a marvelous way, this trilogy has three very distinct books and invites a lot of very diverse dialogue about the books as a collection, but also as individuals.
While the series is frequently called the Call the Midwife series because of the first book and the hit BBC show, I’ve found that this is a really insufficient way to categorize the trilogy. Perhaps the East End trilogy fits the series better—the third and final book suggests this as a logical title because Worth leaves East End after this. Presumably, her other books are not about the East End but her career afterward. This is further supported by the fact that she writes an epilogue into this book that explains what happened to our favorite characters/people.
Why have I committed the epic faux pas of doing a “/” in that sentence? It brings me back to one of my initial preoccupations with Worth’s style given the genre that these books are published under. These are listed as memoir and Worth employs a first person narrative structure—this can be very inviting and comforting. It is easy to read first person—I don’t mean that in a negative way. First person feels like hot cocoa—it reminds me of being a kid and gives me warm-fuzzy feelings. I find that if a book is first person I read it faster than a book in third because it feels like I’m dreaming, like the action of the story is more in my command than when a third person narrator is constructing everything for me.
In the East End trilogy, Worth introduced us to a younger version of herself as well as her fellow nurses, midwives and nuns (who were primary district nurses and midwives for the East End in the 1950s). We met Chummy, Trixie, Cynthia, Sister Julienne, Sister Evangelina and the ever-amusing Sister Monica Joan. These characters enchant just as much as, if not more than, their patients—we learn that Sister Monica Joan was aristocratic and gave up everything for the freedom of being a nun. A freedom many readers would not suspect—to us the life of a nun may not seem glamorous, secretive or rebellious. However, Sister Monica Joan teaches us that it can be all of these things. Being a huge fan of the medieval and early modern time periods, Sister Monica Joan reminded me of women from another time—women who found that the only way a man wasn’t going to control and command them was to marry the Church instead of a flesh and blood man. Marrying Christ allowed for these women to become independent, educated, and (if they were born low class) to rise up the social ladder while transcending the rat race. Sister Monica Joan had no interest in being someone’s wife or daughter if it meant that she had to follow their will instead of her own heart—and so she entered into the religious life despite the huge rift it caused in her family.
How would we know any of this given a first person narration? Because Jenny Lee (who later becomes Worth) is enamored of the old nun. Still, whenever Jenny asks Sister Monica Joan anything she refuses to answer, preferring to remain an enigma and often lapsing into a tangent that has nothing to do with the question. With Sister Monica Joan (and also with Chummy) the incredible breadth of detail that Worth gives us is a bit strange— she knows details about Trixie, Sister Evangelina, and Sister Julienne but in the way any of us might know our co-workers. There is certainly some information, but an underwhelming amount— in fact if you were to create character Facebook pages you might not even have ample information (without pulling from the show) to make interesting profiles. Worth tells us things about Sister Monica Joan and Chummy that are intimidate, precise and revealing—but never really gives concrete ways how she could know this.
If you weren’t looking to connect those dots, you might never notice that narratively there are huge gaps. Gaps are a frequent problem for memoir—what are the gaps? Why are they there? Are they helpful? Harmful?
Maybe I noticed these gaps because I was looking at the genre….maybe I noticed them because while I was researching the series a bit more, I discovered a living nun that knew Jenny Lee (and worked with her in the East End) who claimed that she recognized a lot of characters….but not Sister Monica Joan or Chummy. Now Worth was in the East End for a relatively short period of time in her life—anyone working with her during this period of time in this very specific location would have run into one another (in fact, any new faces in the East End were the subject of so much gossip and speculation that nobody was anonymous in the docklands).
Farewell to the East End spent a decent amount of time telling the stories of Sister Monica Joan and Chummy. For Sister Monica Joan this was a bit of a narrative hangover from Shadows of the Workhouse where she was accused of stealing from local vendors (only to be found innocent). However, we follow her through the end of her life—and begin to get the sense of why Worth chose hospice after midwifery. Sister Monica Joan takes a huge spot in this book as a feminist anchor—she is always steadfast, self-assured, and independent, she cares nothing for rules or conventions and does what pleases her, when it pleases her. Despite being a nun, she is a bit irreverent. She will remind you of any crazy aunt or smarmy grandmother in your family—she is very likeable. In the show, she is one of the primary characters and they have repeatedly used her storylines as major arcs at least once a season.
And she is, apparently, not real.
I don’t know how to feel about this— do I love her any less? No. But is an entirely fictional character a problem in a memoir? Maybe? Does she serve a purpose that is valuable? Yes.
But I still don’t know if this means that Worth’s wonderful feminist environment where women-help-women, where there are practically official matriarchies running the entire social sphere of East End London, where there are authentic voices for women that are diverse instead of hegemonic….where authentic women lived authentic lives is also not real. Authenticity in the East End isn’t given, it is earned. You get to grab your life by the horns and say This is who I am. Anything less and you might well be run out of the docks by a mob that’s angry you’ve interfered with their truth. If there is one thing that Worth emphasizes, it is that the life of the patients and nurses made no apologies—it was raw, surprising, strong, and organic. Life in the East End looks like a garden—it blooms, it goes into hibernation, but there is a strong current of life running through it even while it seems to be sleeping.
Does introducing fictional characters undermine this?
I think so.
I love what Worth accomplished—opening the door to district voices, providing a platform for midwives to enter back into non-medical dialogue, and providing a very assertive and educated female voice to counteract the idea that the 1950s were generally a time of Stepfordian submission. However, when one of her cornerstone feminist characters is fake this really undercuts the organic environment where women can bloom— it makes it feel not like Sister Monica Joan might have existed, but that she couldn’t have. She is too good to be true—the Betty White in a habit that we are all praying really lived but didn’t.
Maybe this isn’t a review so much as a plea for more voices to answer my question: do these characters have to be real for this trilogy to be amazing?
Truly, I know that this is the question that keeps coming back to me again and again—it is what I ask all my friends who watch the show, and it is why I am throwing this book into the world praying other people take it up so we can talk about it.
When it is hard to be your own person, to be educated, to be self-sufficient, to be in charge of your own destiny— is it important to have hope, or to have idols?
Jennifer Worth was a district nurse and midwife in the East End of London during the 1950s. She later became a hospice nurse and devoted time to musical pursuits as well as raising her two children. Her best-selling series consists of Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, and Farewell to the East End. BBC picked up the series and made a top-rated show called Call the Midwife. Worth died in 2011 before the first episode ever aired, it was dedicated to her memory.