Shadows of the Workhouse is a poignant continuation of the Call the Midwife trilogy by Jennifer Worth based on her experiences training as a midwife in London’s East End during the 1950s. Recently adopted as a popular British television series shown on PBS in the United States, this second volume is devoted to more in-depth story telling.
Whereas Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times (originally published as simply The Midwife) was mostly a montage depicting her acclimation to the life in the East End among the midwife-nuns based in Nonnatus House, this second volume is structured as three parts. Part I: Workhouse Children focuses on three characters who grew up in the workhouse, an early welfare-state attempt to take care of the destitute that morphed into a dreaded Dickensian institution. After an interlude devoted to the Trial of Sister Monica Joan, an eccentric, mercurial retired midwife who might be losing her marbles and accused of stealing, Part III: the Old Soldier describes Jenny’s friendship with Mr. Collett, a veteran who survives the Boer Wars only to lose his entire family during the World Wars, ultimately leading him to spend his last days in an old age home in a former workhouse. This volume casts a wider net, relating the characters’ life stories beyond Jenny’s direct interaction with them as patients or colleagues. It provides a portrait of nineteenth-century life as well as the atrocities of war. As such, it is more a tribute to the people Worth met during her tenure in the East End than simply a memoir detailing her opinions and experiences.
While vividly chronicling lives of unimaginable hardship, Worth excels in making the humanity, goodness, and resilience of the characters shine through. There are also very humorous interludes, especially in how she writes dialogue. While the television series follows the books closely, it cannot provide the depth of back story possible in book form. Therefore, I would recommend both the books and the television series (Season 2 to air on PBS starting March 31) to anyone interested in a slice of postwar British history or just poignant, heartfelt stories.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Ecco. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.