Reading Resolution: “Shadows of the Workhouse” by Jennifer Worth

11. A biography or memoir: Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth

List Progress: 8/30

The Call the Midwife television series is a much-beloved ongoing drama, with twelve seasons and counting under its belt. Part medical story, part historical exploration and part soap opera, the show has long-since left its source material behind and gone into the realm of fiction. But at the beginning, it was a fairly close adaptation of the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a nurse and midwife who worked in the East End district of Poplar, London, in the 1950’s and 60’s. Shadows of the Workhouse is the second of these memoirs, endeavoring to expand from the first book’s close focus on midwifery to explore the adults that Worth lived and worked with as a community nurse. But Worth runs into the same problem here that the show often runs up again: the mothers and babies are the interesting part of her story, and when she leaves them behind, the efforts to fill their place are a bit strained. 

Shadows of the Workhouse is divided into three major sections, only one of which really deals with the history of British workhouses, those hellish institutions designed to punish the poor for being poor. Worth tells the stories of Jane, Peggy and Frank, three of her peers who spent their childhoods in workhouses and carried those scars with them for the rest of their lives. Worth writes with a level of detail that strains credulity, especially about specific and intimate details of the very shy Jane’s early childhood, but the stories themselves are engaging and heartbreaking, and the whole book would have benefitted from a narrowed focus on just the workhouses.

The second section is the weakest: the comedic tale of a possibly-senile nun with a tendency towards petty theft and a loquacious vocabulary. Sister Monica Joan steals bits and bobs from vendors for no reason other than that she wants to and that no one is going to accuse an esteemed nun of theft, and this story sits strangely between tales of people on the razor’s edge of poverty. Sister Monica Joan was from a very wealthy background and all of the nurses are either middle- or upper-class, and it would have been far more interesting to get some real analysis about their place in the Poplar community. 

The concluding section is about Worth’s growing friendship with Joe Collet, an elderly patient who tells her his life story over the course of daily visits for his leg ulcers. An impoverished childhood and being tricked into a stint in the Boer Wars as a young man did nothing to dampen his good will, but the loneliness and isolation of old age have taken their brutal toll. Collet’s life is a fascinating look at life across those periods of time, and a condemnation of the state of elder care, but it again doesn’t feel like it says much about workhouses or the wider state of Poplar. It is just an interesting story about an old man.

Shadows of the Workhouse rides on a lot of goodwill from the first Call the Midwife book. Its stories were well-integrated into the first two seasons of the television adaptation, but as a work on its own, the book doesn’t stand up. Worth doesn’t show enough analysis to be an engaging history book, and her prose style isn’t quite evocative enough to make due with the personal stories, so it is stranded in the middle. But as a jumping-off point for a wildly successful series, the book has at least done its job.

Would I Recommend It: Not really.

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