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Pondering the pages ~ The Midwife: A memoir of birth, joy and hard times by Jennifer Worth

April 9, 2009

Today’s pondering:

So one might think themidwife The Midwife: A Novel of Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth would be an odd selection for me. Let’s face it I’m the least child oriented person I know. I don’t have single maternal bone in my body. No ticking biological clock here. But the book snippet sounded like it would make fascinating reading. And … it did. This is a memoir chalk full of human drama. Imagine the living and working conditions of England’s East End in the 1950s. They were deplorable to say the least. Now pack a mass of humanity into these wretched surroundings and you have one riveting story.

Yes this book is about Ms. Worth’s job as a midwife but it’s so much more than that. It’s about people. The people who made the East End their home. We get a glimpse back in time to an era where birth control was nonexistent. Women had baby after baby, being pregnant for years in a row. Families were large, often numbering into the teens living in two, maybe, three room flats. Privacy was unknown and you slept 3, 4, 5 or even more to a bed, if you had a bed. Life was hard, money was short. You didn’t take anything for granted and took every little advantage that came your way no matter how small.

She comes in contact with characters you’d want absolutely nothing to do with. And you meet husbands, wives and children who touch you to the depth of your soul. There’s Mrs. Jenkins. She’s dirty, unkempt, a nuisance. Uncannily showing up when a child is born Ms. Worth would like nothing better than to avoid her. Mrs. Jenkins is always asking about the health of the new mother and baby. I figured she’d lost a child in birth or shortly thereafter. Her story is so much more than that. She risks living in a workhouse if it means keeping her children safe and feed with a roof over their heads. It’s one of personal torment and shows just how far a mother will go to protect her children.

We meet Len & Concita Warren. The love between husband and wife jumps off the page. They have this remarkable marriage despite an age difference and language barrier. And talk about baby factory! By the time she’s done it either child #24 or #25. Mr. Warren is a unique man for his era putting Concita and the children above all else. Concita is pregnant, sick beyond belief giving birth to a premature baby boy. By all rights this child shouldn’t have lived and his story is harrowing. Mother and child need serious medical attention but Concita won’t leave her home. Len stands by Concita’s decisions and backs her 100% though you’re just sure it’s all wrong. Through sheer love and determination Concita wills herself and this child to live.

We meet Ted and Winnie. Ted’s an older widower, with no children from his first marriage, lucky enough to find love the second time around with Winnie. They meet, marry and have a child. All is right with the world or so it seems. Ted’s ecstatic. He has a healthy, beautiful son. But things could go downhill from here. From all appearances the baby, Edward, shows signs of being of ethnic origin. He most certainly isn’t Ted’s child. Ted, knowing that life for Edward will be difficult, takes high road. The face he shows to the world is one of playing the fool while all the time he’s a wise man.

The nuns, the sisters who share Ms. Worth’s work and home life are an eye-opening group. From the bizarre behavior of Sister Monica Joan, to hard case Sister Evangelina to clumsy, tongue tied Sister Chummy they are a variety of astonishing personalities. And just like any family they have their moments. They pick on each other. They care for each other. But most of all they love each other. For all their faults their acts of humility and kindness shine brightly.

There’s triumphant and tragedy. You’ll find yourself laughing and crying. You’ll marvel at the how these babies, and families, survived in horrible conditions with limited resources. Most of all you have hope for the human condition. It puts life’s everyday happenings in perspective. I couldn’t put this book down. Every story contained within these pages is gripping. If you’re looking for a hypnotizing, mesmerizing book I don’t think you’d go wrong with The Midwife.


A good book should leave you…slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it.
~William Styron, interview, Writers at Work, 1958


  1. April 9, 2009 5:57 pm

    I love memoirs, so I think I’d like this as long as the birth scenes aren’t too graphic.

    • April 10, 2009 3:01 pm

      This book is very tame in terms of graphic. She really focuses on the circumstances surrounding the births than the actual birth. It is an engaging book because of the human drama and the cast of characters.

  2. April 10, 2009 5:40 am

    I too have no maternal bone in my body. But a story about people sounds like a good book to me.

  3. April 10, 2009 3:03 pm

    I loved it and was drawn into the lives of the people she encounters throughout her years as a midwife.

  4. April 10, 2009 4:45 pm

    Great review of the novel Marcia. You have me even more excited to read it after reading about your laughing and crying. I love novels like that. Perfect quote you used at the end-seems fitting for the story.

    • April 10, 2009 5:28 pm

      Keep an eye on your mailbox. I went to the post office today. You should be enjoying it yourself here soon

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