Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

by Jennifer Worth

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The highest-rated drama in BBC history, Call the Midwife will delight fans of Downton Abbey

Viewers everywhere have fallen in love with this candid look at post-war London. In the 1950s, twenty-two-year-old Jenny Lee leaves her comfortable home to move into a convent and become a midwife in London's East End slums. While delivering babies all over the city, Jenny encounters a colorful cast of women—from the plucky, warm-hearted nuns with whom she lives, to the woman with twenty-four children who can't speak English, to the prostitutes of the city's seedier side.

An unfortgettable story of motherhood, the bravery of a community, and the strength of remarkable and inspiring women, Call the Midwife is the true story behind the beloved PBS series, which will soon return for its sixth season.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101614402
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/29/2012
Series: The Midwife Trilogy , #1
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 9,284
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jennifer Worth trained as a nurse at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. She then moved to London to train as a midwife. She later became a staff nurse at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, and then ward sister and sister at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in Euston. Music had always been her passion, and in 1973 Jennifer left nursing in order to study music intensively, gaining the Licentiate of the London College of Music in 1974 and a Fellowship ten years later. Jennifer married Philip Worth in 1963 and they lived together in Hertfordshire. She died in May 2011, leaving her husband, two daughters and three grandchildren. Her memoirs are the basis for the popular TV series Call the Midwife.

Reading Group Guide

“Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine? Yet midwifery is in itself the very stuff of drama and melodrama” (p. xi).

In the early 1950s, Jennifer Worth became a nurse. After her general training, she found herself in the convent of the Midwives of St. Raymund Nonnatus, an order of Anglican nuns devoted to delivering babies in the slums of the London Docklands. An agnostic, she little expected that she would eventually spend two and a half years with the sisters that would transform her life forever.

Although a mere fifty years distant, the world of Call the Midwife is profoundly different from our own. The Pill was yet to be introduced, and the average nuclear family was several times larger than it is today. Parents with a dozen or more children regularly shared two or three rooms, counting themselves lucky to have an indoor cold–water tap with which to manage the cooking, cleaning, and endless piles of laundry. Equally astonishing is Worth’s recollection that she and her colleagues—unlike the area’s policemen—could safely traverse the East End’s unlit roads at night, alone. “So deep is the respect, even reverence, of the roughest, toughest docker for the district midwives that we can go anywhere alone, day or night, without fear” (p. 10).

It is within this milieu that young Worth encounters the vastness of the human drama and a cast of characters worthy of Dickens. Her antenatal rounds bring her into intimate contact with the women of London’s working class—from Brenda, physically bowed by Rickets but possessed of indomitable good spirits, to Molly, a teenage bride whose brutal husband forces her into prostitution and imperils the lives of their three children, to Conchita, a native Spaniard who does not speak the same language as her doting husband but is about to deliver their twenty–fourth child. Worth relates their stories and more with compassion and affection in equal measure.

Working side–by–side among the sisters, Worth soon learns that they, too, possess compelling histories. Sister Monica Joan is a mischievous and slightly dotty octogenarian when Worth meets her at Nonnatus House but in her youth, the sister defied her aristocratic family to become a nun and midwife, eventually delivering thousands of babies in London through the worst bombings of the Blitz. However, it is Sister Evangelina who most surprises Worth. After accompanying the abrupt and seemingly humorless nun on her rounds, Worth discovers that the sister is a war heroine who is beloved by her patients for her scatological tales and ability to emit a fart of Chaucerian proportions. Wise and saintly Sister Julienne is the stability of the convent, and clever Sister Bernadette is the perfect midwife.

Written in response to an article in The Midwives Journal lamenting the notable absence of midwives in literature, Call the Midwife offers a riveting look behind the scenes at one of the world’s earliest and most little–known professions. Worth’s memoir of her early years at Nonnatus House is alternately heartwarming and heart–wrenching and the stories she shares will fascinate anyone who enjoys a good yarn—but especially anyone who has ever had or plans to have a child.



Jennifer Worth is a former midwife as well as a writer and musician. She lives in London.



Q. Why do you think midwifery is cloaked in mystery?

Mystery and magic have always surrounded childbirth, mostly due to ignorance. Likewise midwives have been reviled and ridiculed, even feared as witches. Sex, birth, and death are still taboo subjects in varying degrees in different cultures.

Q. Why do you think this is?

Fear, perhaps. Fear of the power these things have over human life. Knowing that we don’t control everything, maybe. I’m not quite sure. Perhaps an anthropologist could tell you, or a philosopher.

Q. Were you ever reviled or ridiculed?

Oh, no, we were valued and respected. But it was not until the beginning of the last century that midwifery as a profession came to be taken seriously. That’s only a hundred years ago, in thousands of years of human history.

Q. What are the characteristics of a successful midwife?

Well, in my day it was said that it took seven years to make a good midwife, so obviously experience counts a good deal. I think the innate ability to inspire confidence in a woman in travail must be high on the list. Training, knowledge, judgment, patience all come into it, and the capacity for hard work.

Q. That sounds like a formidable list. What was the attrition rate among young midwives you have worked with?

Almost nil, I would say.

Q. You mean no one dropped out? No one found they couldn’t take it?

No, not in my experience, and that was because the work was so fulfilling. Job satisfaction is the term we would use today. It is a lovely profession. A midwife is in the thick of life. She is the key figure in the most intense and intimate time of a woman’s life.

Q. Can you relate your favorite experiences as a midwife?

Every new birth was my favorite experience, just the joy, the thrill, the privilege of bringing a new life into the world. I’ve had hundreds of “favorite experiences.” What a wonderful life.

Q. Is that why you wrote the book?

Yes. And also because, aside from textbooks, there is no book in all American or European literature written by a midwife about midwifery. Given the enormity of the subject, that’s extraordinary!

Q. What changes have you seen since you started midwifery fifty years ago?

Well, half a century is a long time and everything has changed. I would say there is more anxiety attending childbirth these days; more caesarian sections, more inductions, more drugs, more drips, more medicine in other words. Childbirth has drifted away from being a natural event into a medical condition requiring medical treatment.

Q. The tide seems to be turning back towards a more natural approach, and many women are choosing a midwife. Do you think this is good?

Yes, but perhaps not for everyone.

Q. What advice would you give to a woman planning her delivery?

Stick to what you think is right for you. If you think a home birth attended by a midwife is best for you, don’t be deflected. But if you would feel safer in a hospital environment, that’s all right too.

Q. What advice would you give to a woman training to be a midwife today?

Always remember you are part of the most wonderful, the most important, and the most privileged calling in the world. Nursing and midwifery are a vocation, not just a job.

Q. You went to Nonnatus House an agnostic, but you found God. Did you contemplate becoming a nun?

That is a very deep question, and I do not readily wear my heart or my faith on my sleeve. Call the Midwife

is the first of a trilogy and the three books together depict a spiritual journey. My life was transformed forever by the sisters. They are still a religious order, and I have ongoing contact and communion with them and lean heavily on them for prayer and guidance.


  • Even though the Docklands were notoriously dangerous, the midwives and district nurses were able to walk unaccompanied without fear. Is there a comparable profession today?
  • How many children in a family do you think is ideal? Why?
  • Discuss the Church’s decision to take away Mary’s baby. Would she have been able to provide for it without turning to prostitution?
  • Worth asks, “What woman worthy of the name Mother would stand on a high moral platform about selling her body if her child were dying of hunger and exposure? Not I” (p. 162). Is it biology or psychology that drives women to extreme measures to protect their children while fathers often deny either paternity or their paternal responsibilities?
  • Should Doris have allowed Cyril to send away the baby she bore illegitimately? Did she have a choice?
  • Ted became a loving and wonderful father to Edward without actually being his biological father. How important is biology in the parent–child relationship?
  • Babies as premature as Conchita’s twenty–fifth child are never allowed to stay home today. Do you think he would he have survived if he had been taken to the hospital?
  • After learning their respective histories, Worth radically changes her opinion of both Sister Evangelina and Mrs. Jenkins. Share an episode in your own life when your initial dislike for a person was transformed once you got to know him or her better.
  • During the time that Worth recounts, most women delivered their babies at home and were deeply suspicious of hospitals. Today, the opposite is true. How do you think such a dramatic change came about and is it for better or for worse?
  • If you already have children, did you use a midwife? If you don’t but are planning to have children, would you? Why or why not?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 161 reviews.
    socksgirl More than 1 year ago
    I first heard of Call The Midwife when I was flipping through channels and stumbled upon it on PBS. I was immediately drawn in and had to go back onto the website to watch all the episodes I missed. When the first season was over I did some investigating and found the show was based on the true memoirs of Jennifer Worth. There are actually 3 books in the series, this is the first of the three and each chapter is basically a short vignette of an experience nurse Jenny Lee had during her time at Nonnatus House. It is a fairly quick, easy yet interesting read. Made all the better because the stories are true. I would highly recommend for anyone!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Such a wonderful bio, highly recomend
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Tales of a British midwife in a poor, working class section of London in the 1950's. Very well written. I would highly recommend the book even if (maybe especially if) you have seen the TV series. To begin, you can appreciate what a wonderful job the series did capturing the characters and the spirit of the book. In addition, the book adds a lot of highly interesting sociological commentary that is just not found in the series.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The book is right in line with the PBS series "Call the Midwife". It may be a little graphic for some, but as a retired nurse, I found it right on the mark as far as providing maternity care for the indigent. Great descriptions of atmospheric London neighborhoods in regards to the weather and people. Enjoyed it a lot.
    ignacio_4_bn More than 1 year ago
    This book provided a lot of information on how people lived back then and how far we have come with our new technologies. Technologies that have helped save many lives. At times, I felt that I was reading a book for medical students because, although it's not meant, in any way, to be a medical reference book, it does explain a lot of things, of a medical nature, in great detail. Before reading this book I had no idea how undervalued the midwife was and how painstakingly hard it can be. From what I read, this kind of job can take a toll on you both physically and emotionally too. If nothing else, this book allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of what a midwife went through in the past and how, once again, technology has changed so many things, for the better, today. Jennifer Worth has a great way of keeping the reader engaged. A must read.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Well worth reading and hopefully you'lll get more out of the PBS Series if you do. Chapter at the end on Cockney is fascinating
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The book gives more depth to the series. I enjoyed it and look forward to the second and third bookz!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Jenny starts her Midwife Job in 1950's east-end London rather naive. As her work & story progresses, she grows to see, the women she delivers babies for, as the true Heroes of her work. I found this author easy to read, & her story so interesting I had to keep reading! I highly recommend this book.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The book transports you to a time of simplicity and community awareness. The characters are thoughtfully described and you have stepped back into a different generation
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I love the "Call the Midwife" series. This book adds so much more to the story. As a postpartum nurse I love reading about childbirth in the 1950's but reading about English society at that time makes the story so much more interesting. Reading about living in the tennaments during that time and what life was like in East London during that time adds so much more to the story. If you like historical novels you will love this one.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I enjoyed this memoir. It was certainly a rough read in places but it's also terribly engrossing.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I loved the TV series so much that I had to buy this book. I enjoy reading about the daily lives of people throughout history, and this book describes women's health, public health, war recovery in London's East End and the manners and morals of the time. It is as beautiful as the show, with more exploration behind the characters' relationships and living conditions. And of course, there are all the births, which are as moving in the book as they are on the show.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book. It gave such a human side to a time in our history that we know little about. If you like British history, this is a great read and will keep you wanting more chapters.
    manders204 More than 1 year ago
    This was such a great book. This book opened my eyes to life in east London.
    UtahSnowy More than 1 year ago
    The BBC/PBS series follows the book in most cases. Some of the episoids come from the other books in this series. It was delightful to read it in her own words. I wish she had written more.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    If you enjoyed the TV series you will enjoy the book. Extends the picture of their lives more. Some might not care for the descriptions of actual practice of helping deliver babies, but very informative.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Such a great book. I could identify with each character on some level.
    txbkwrm50 More than 1 year ago
    This book teases but doesn't deliver on several issues: the decision to enter nursing as a career, the progession from novice to expert midwife and the transition from agnostic to believer. We have a hint that the author had an unhappy love affair as a very young woman and went into nursing. But she never discusses how she hit upon nursing as a career or why she went on for midwifery training. There are several birth stories but we don't get a sense of progression from novice to expert in midwifery. The information about the birthing process is accurate but might be puzzling to a non-medical person. Lastly the author starts her time in the convent as an agnostic but is touched by the example of the nuns who are training her. We get the sense that there may have been a spiritual change but we have no information about how this change affects her practice as a nurse. In general the book was well-written but ultimately unsatifying because there were so many stories that needed to be fleshed out.
    Anonymous 9 months ago
    Anonymous 9 months ago
    Anonymous 10 months ago
    also Ted was no fool, he had a big heart
    Anonymous 10 months ago
    I learned about this book from the PBS series. The book is well written and takes you right into the lives and homes of people in the East End of London. Parts of the book brought tears to my eyes but most of all I admired how these ordinary people dealt with very difficult situations. It was inspiring how they still found joy and didn’t get beaten down with life.
    Mahuenga 10 months ago
    Far better than the TV series, which I attempted to watch several times and couldn’t get past the first 5 minutes. This true narrative brings you into the neighborhood and lives of people you would never have known existed. Worth’s compassionate outlook gives a lot to think about for those of us who have never truly known “want.” The characters she describes are unforgettable. The medical information is involving yet not overwhelming. She documents a brief slice of British history that has since disappeared.
    lozbeth1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Fascinating memoirs of a 1950s midwife. Heartwarming characters, as well as discussion of medical techniques, this is a page turner from start to finish. My only criticism is that it wasn't longer!
    dasuzuki on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I do not normally read memoirs so I was surprised how much I enjoyed this one. Worth wrote in an engaging manner that drew you into the lives of her patients. Having given birth to a child with all of the modern conveniences available to me it¿s hard to imagine how these women and children back in the 50s managed to survive. I can¿t imagine what it would be like going through what they went through. I also have to give credit to the midwives of Nonnatus house for their dedication. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is a mother. It is definitely an eye-opening account.