Fascinating Memoir of 1950s East End of London

I absolutely loved The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, and not just because I’m pregnant and love birth stories!  The best part of the book was the inspiring and thought-provoking glimpse into the history of a subculture.

In her memoir of serving as a nurse in London’s Docklands area in the 1950s, Jennifer Worth does not sugarcoat the desperate poverty and horrifying living conditions of her patients, but she also beautifully documents the uplifting characteristics of the culture: strong family networks, deep community ties, joy and good humor in the face of unbelievable circumstances.  Ultimately the book is not about midwifery, although that’s certainly an aspect, it’s about the triumph of the human spirit.

That said, since Worth was a midwife, the book is organized around different women she attended and what their families show about the overall culture and area.  I was utterly amazed at the character the women showed: many of them lived with families of 10 or more in one or two rooms, often without running water, most without bathrooms or washing facilities.  And yet most of them were cheerful and hopeful, keeping their homes pleasant and families together, helping each other and supporting each other.

There is much I could say about the fascinating aspects of this narrative–about how much I learned about the area and different ways poverty was dealt with by the government at different times, about the cleverness and historical roots of the Cockney dialect, about the history and politics of childbearing, and on and on–but I will just leave you with my hearty recommendation for this fascinating and inspiring book.

Note: The book has been turned into a miniseries, of which I have only seen one episode. The episode was good, although it did condense one story to the point of compromising the impact.  You can find it by episode on Amazon, or on PBS.org (at least you can at the time of this writing; PBS tends to leave seasons up for short windows of time and then take them down).


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15 thoughts on “Fascinating Memoir of 1950s East End of London

  1. This looks fascinating! Adding it to my list. 🙂 And high up on it–hope to read it in the next month.

    I watched a preview for the first episode, but didn’t realize it was based off of a book.

  2. I’m glad you loved this book too!!!! I felt the same about the miniseries — after reading the book I just couldn’t get into the series, which was strange since the scenery and dress was done so well. I should probably find time to watch more sometime. I just wish her other books weren’t so hard to get ahold of!

  3. I received all four of Jennifer Worth’s books for my birthday this year and devoured them all in short order. They are probably the best books I have read this year and I’m so glad you enjoyed The Midwife. I can highly recommend all of her books and strongly suggest you read them. I’m quite sure you won’t regret it if you enjoyed her first book. Worth has a real talent for bringing the people she talks about to life. I can’t praise her books highly enough! Her final book ‘In the Midst of Life’ about death and palliative care was particularly thought provoking.

  4. You’re prego!? Have you mentioned that previously? Congratulations!!

    I’m adding this book to my library hold list. Also going to check out the series. 🙂

  5. I think anyone who has an interest in history or midwifery would (should?) love this book! I watched the tv series (seasons 1&2) before reading, and enjoyed both (the tv series did take me 2-3 episodes to get “into”). Personally, I wish I hadn’t read the chapter “Cable Street” in the book because I felt it was needlessly graphic in a couple pages.
    Tammy L recently posted..New Recipe: Best Ever Blueberry Muffins

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