Narrated by Nicola Barber
Length: 12 Hours 2 Minutes
At only 22, Jennifer Worth has decided to become a midwife in postwar London, specifically in the slums of the East End. When she arrives at the convent that will be both her home and her workplace, she meets the eclectic bunch of nuns and trained nurses that will come to be a second family to her as she begins plying her craft to the poor and underprivileged women of the city. Riding out on her bicycle to labors both just beginning and already in progress, Jennifer tells the tales of the remarkable women and babies who show such a zest for life, that she is sometime taken aback. Life in the slums is dirty and most of the women that
Worth sees are badly in need of other types of assistance as well. Each birth she attends is rare, special and beautiful, but there is at times heartbreaking sadness that accompanies her deliveries. From the tiny baby that is so premature that she must take milk wrung one drop at a time out of a towel, to the reproductive health clinic that she must sometimes manage, Jennifer sees it all with newfound awe and sometimes even with amusement. Some of the tasks that she is asked to cope with are gruesome and some are bittersweet, but as she learns to navigate her way on bicycle across the city, in any weather or condition, Jennifer becomes a nurse and midwife of such skill that she sometimes even surprises herself. Interspersed with her birthing tales are the tales of the nuns whom she lives and works with—nuns who range from sly and spirited to diffident and easily offended, Jennifer comes to know and love them all. It is a solid and well told tale, crafting equal bits truth and reflection. Jennifer the midwife will linger in your mind long after the book is put away on its shelf.
When I discovered this audiobook at SIBA, I didn’t know that there was a planned PBS series already underway, and I took that as a good sign. I love it when books become television shows, and know that PBS has a fantastic reputation—just look at Downton Abbey. I was very pleased with this audiobook from start to finish, and thought that Nicola Barber totally embodied Jennifer Worth in this reflective set of tales. Her British accent was flawless and spirited, and she had no trouble in capturing the awe of bringing struggling babes into the world, and also in the jovial way that she captures the voices of the nuns. I liked her delivery, for she was able to handle the soft and tender moments with care, and also the less swanky side of life in the slums. You could hear her voice, gripped with empathy and silent understanding of these women in the way she spoke her tales, and by the time it was all over, I felt very close to both the narrator and the author.
Despite her choice of profession, Jennifer is not a stodgy and overserious woman, and in fact, she struggles with the choice of living in St. Raymond Nonnatus house when she first arrives on the scene. She has no particular religious calling, but the fact that the nuns of Nonnatus house are so well regarded in the community for their successful birthing methods, and the fact that Jennifer herself feels somehow called to be there, leads her right into the ruckus that will one day become second nature to her. Jennifer herself was very capable, even in her first deliveries, and she had a sound mind that enabled her to cope with the many sadnesses that life in the slums would expose her to. She was bold enough to know when a woman was in travail, and when it became dangerous, and she was sure in her ways with the women of the town. Make no mistake, it was not only the births and postnatal care that she had to be responsible for, but also for the sexual health clinic in a disorderly corner of London. Many times the things she saw were unappetizing, and sometimes even even the stolid Jennifer was shaken.
The many stories that she tells about the births that she presided over were the icing on the cake for me. I’ve already admitted to loving midwife stories, but the truths and solidity behind every aspect of the births that she attends were totally absorbing to me. Many of the medical advancements that we now take for granted had not been invented yet, and still, not many of her mothers fared badly at all. Particularly striking was the tale of the immigrant mother who was married to an Englishman and spoke no English, while bearing him 24 children. It’s impossible to even contemplate that number, but what Jennifer insists is an error on her record is indeed fact, and giving birth to her 24th child, Jennifer is present and sees a rapturous love for both the new baby and all her other children from a mother who speaks not a word of English.
Some of the stories were funny, some unusual, and some very sad as well. Both babies and mothers were lost, but funnily enough, not as many as you would expect, for the training and expertise of the Nonnatus house nuns was impeccable and went beyond the standard of care that we have even today. Mothers were visited at their homes for home births, unless it became perilous for them to do so. Only then were they removed to the hospital. Each mother had two visits a day from a traveling nurse as their day approached, and they were to stay abed for two weeks after delivery. This is virtually unheard of nowadays, when the typical delivery and hospital stay is about three days, after which the mother is sent home to fend for herself, with no one looking in. The nuns of Nonnatus house were different in that they did continue to look in, again, twice a day. They must make sure the child and mother were healthy, the child was suckling, and all things in between. It was dedication of the highest order, and it was hard not to be impressed with the level of care.
The other aspect of this winning book was the nuns themselves. They ran the gamut, personality wise, and flew in the face of what a nun should look like or be. They were ever compassionate and understanding, but this didn’t mean that they weren’t above petty rivalries in the abbey, or didn’t have difficulty trying to keep their own intentions honestly or without struggle. As Jennifer gets to know each nun very closely, she finds that living among the sisters is just like living among literal sisters, and that despite their higher calling from God, some could be petty while still being loving and selfless. As she breaks through the walls of their emotional interiors, she discovers that they are all very human women who have had lives of struggle and who all come from very different walks of life. It is these nuns who, without knowing it, help Jennifer to find her own way to God, and find her place among them as well.
This was a fantastic listen for me, and it only took me a couple of days to finish it. It’s a must read for all those who love midwifery or those who would like to get a picture of what it was like to be a British woman in the 1940s. It was not a book that one could read totally dry-eyed, either with tears or with laughter, and because of the abundance of emotion instilled in Jennifer’s words, it was a book that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. Both the emotional and physical practicalities were given great regard, and despite the differences that readers will see cross culturally and cross generationally, it is a book to be marvelled at. I can’t wait to see the series that PBS crafted from this wonderful specimen of literature.