After enjoying Call the Midwife so much, I was pleased to find out that my library acquired the second and third books in the series. Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End are less about midwifery (with a few interesting exceptions) but full of interesting observations about the social and economic conditions of inner city London after World War II.
Both books were much more bleak than the first in the series, especially Shadows of the Workhouse. Although the author tried to caveat that workhouses were created with good intentions, the reality of life in those institutions was so dreadful, that even though some of Worth’s anecdotes ended on a note of slight redemption, the overall feeling is one of horror that such places existed for so long into the modern era. It was also terribly sad to read about how workhouses affected children, and how they catered to the most base and violent impulses in the caretakers.
The value to reading about the workhouses though, in my opinion, is two-fold. First, it informs our broader understanding of history and gives context to complicated modern problems like the cycle of poverty. Second, I think it’s a good reminder that injustice and oppression are not things that other people do, they are things that all people do, when constraints are removed. It’s a sobering thought to think of what commonly accepted injustices will be viewed as abhorrent in a generation or two.
Farewell to the East End is a little more hopeful, although still full of sad and desperate situations. There was one chapter in this book that was so horrifying I had to stop reading and pick back up after that particular story was over. I very rarely actually skip (rather than skim) anything in a book, so be warned.
While in many ways the stories contained in these books are heavy and dark, overall the series is not oppressive because Worth also describes the dignity and hope of the people she observed. If you’re interested in British history or social history, I think you’d find this series fascinating and engaging.
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