How humbling is it to leave high school for the work world far away from home? Imagine what it was like for a sheltered twenty-something sent to help provide healthcare in the 1950s? And the kind of care is most personal and it involves parts of life that was not easily discussed at that time. I missed out the first time “Call the Midwife” came out on PBS, but the first season is available for streaming on Netflix.
Set down in what is obviously the rough end of town, a well-dressed woman searches for her new place of employment while the narrator remembers this time in her long-past youth, “Who do you think you are? I must have been mad I could have been an air hostess. I could have been a model. I could have moved to Paris or been a concert pianist. I could have seen the world, been brave, followed my heart. I sidestepped love….Madness was the only explanation. Midwifery is the very stuff of life. … I knew nothing of life itself.”
This is a different kind of fish out of water tale and the woman who first told it, Jennifer Worth RN RM just died in 2011 (25 September 1935 to 31 May 2011), after the series began airing. The series is based on three autobiographical books that she wrote about her work as a midwife in the poor end of town–East End of London in the 1950s.
Worth was a staff nurse at London Hospital in Whitechapel. She worked with the Sisters of St. John the Divine and moved on to other work places. She did not marry until 1963 (artist Philip Worth). They had two daughters and in 1974, she returned to school (London College of Music) teaching piano and singing. She did not publish the book “Call the Midwife” until 2002. In 2005, she published “Shadows of the Workhouse” and then “Farewell to the East End.”
“Call the Midwife” didn’t make it to the BBC until January 2012. Worth had already passed away, but now she’ll live on in the minds and hearts of many and watching this rich emotional landscape make one want to read her books.
Jessica Raine plays the strangely reserved Nurse Jenny Lee who finds Nonnatus House where she lives and works. She is only 22 and this is 1957 and Nonnatus is, so her surprise, a nursing convent. While Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) is in charge, Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) is the one who dominates the convent–not with her personality, but her increasingly time-demanding needs due to her old age.
While Jenny is well-to-do, another nurse, Chummy (Miranda Hart) is from an aristocratic family and is, from her mother’s perspective, slumming it. Chummy is tall and horsey, awkward, but good-hearted and in love with a police constable named Peter (Ben Caplan). Then there’s the golden girl: Trixie is all glamour and self-assuredness–at least with men and dating. The last nurse who isn’t a nun is a quiet, intelligent girl, Cynthia (Bryony Hannah)
In sharp contrast to Jenny, Chummy, Trixie and Cynthia, Sister Evangelina comes from a poor, hard-scrabble background like the people they serve and her no-nonsense demeanor helps give the nurses perpective.
Their patients include people like Conchita Warren who is on her 23rd child after marrying at 13. Her husband brought her back from the Spanish War. He doesn’t speak Spanish. She doesn’t speak English. They obviously don’t argue, and they have quite a brood.
Other patients have sexual diseases, potentially fatal conditions or problems associated with adultery. The midwives learn a lot about life, love and tough decisions from their patients.
Like Chummy, Jenny has a serious suitor, but as the beginning narrative sets up, we know Jenny isn’t ready for love.
The series isn’t without a touch of humor. Much of fun arises from the handyman Fred (Cliff Parisi) and his get-rich-quick schemes. I already ache of Chummy, for Jimmy and for Jenny who has loved unwisely.
Vanessa Redgrave provides the voice of an elderly Jenny. There’s something reassuring about her hindsight commentary. Creator Heidi Thomas gives us women with all their flaws, weaknesses and courages, shows us the outrages of yesteryear. Thomas also has provided us with a wonderful, wounded heroine in Jenny who is a sensitive window into the often neglected world of poor women.