Book review: Farewell to the East End

A scene from BBC's Call The Midwife, which was based on Jennifer Worth's memoirs.
A scene from BBC's Call The Midwife, which was based on Jennifer Worth's memoirs.
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The latest TV series of Call The Midwife may have just finished, but fans should definitely consider exploring the books on which the programme is based.

I have just finished reading Farewell To The East End, the last in Jennifer Worth’s trilogy of memoirs, which talks about her experiences of working as a midwife in the poorest parts of London during the 1950s.

In my view, we should all be grateful that Jennifer Worth put pen to paper as her books not only include the kind of hair-raising stories it would be difficult to make up, but they also act as a record of a time when critical poverty had a profound effect on families in post-war Britain.

Farewell To The East End not only includes many of the stories used in the series, but also delves into the harrowing history behind subjects such as back street abortions and the devastating impact of tuberculosis.

This is a book for readers with strong stomachs and I had the misfortune to read the chapter about the horrific maiming and “surgical rape” of a 13-year-old girl called Nancy, while on a train; a chapter that made me clamp my hand over my mouth in horror. I’m not sure what the other passengers thought of me!

It was during the 19th century when women could be randomly selected from the street and examined by police for signs of venereal disease, a process which came to be known as “surgical rape.”

In my view we live in a world where the abuse of women is sadly often fabricated for gratuitous entertainment in fictional movies and books, bound into very weak storylines, often by authors and directors who just want to shock...or sell a cinema ticket. Perhaps that is cynical, but Worth’s real-life description made me realise no one needs to make that kind of thing up. It was only during the relatively recent history of Victorian Britain that women’s rights were seen as so low, it was legal to effectively abuse any female on a whim.

The story of Julia Masterton who lost her many brothers and sisters, her mother and eventually her own child to tuberculosis was truly touching when told alongside a practical history of how many decades were spent by doctors furiously trying to work out treatments for this terrible disease. At one point they thought sea air helped and at another point mountain air. Then they thought there were genetic traits in families at fault, despite the fact that many unrelated communities such as nuns were also susceptible to the disease.

Finally the contagion element of the condition was identified, but only after huge numbers of lives were lost.

Whereas the somewhat sanitised (but still enthralling) TV series focuses on the central characters of Jenny, Trixie, Chummy and Cynthia, the book, Farewell to the East End, offers a little more, providing a detailed historical setting to the ordeals some of the families encountered.

Despite the shocking nature of some of the stories, Worth never over-dramatises or adds more frills and descriptions than necessary. Rather, everything is told in a matter-of-fact and impartial way. I think it is this strong and unjudgemental narrative voice which makes it so easy to feel close to the characters she discusses; as a reader one feels that these people and situations are being described exactly as they were, and that the author felt it was important for people to know about them.

Farewell to the East End takes the story of Jenny Lee, her fellow midwives and the nuns at Nonnatus House, to its conclusion, but I am pleased to hear that the makers of Call The Midwife are planning to use their own research of 1950s midwifery to make another series, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with.