‘Call the Midwife’: History with heart

By: Julia Sikorski Roehsner

In 2002, an English woman named Jennifer Worth published a book of memoirs titled ‘Call the Midwife,’ telling the story of her life as a young midwife working in London’s East End beginning in the 1950s. The book was later reissued as ‘Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950’ and became a bestseller.

Worth published several other books, including ‘Shadows of the Workhouse’ and ‘Farewell to the East End’ to complete the Midwife trilogy, before her death in 2011.

‘Call the Midwife,’ the television drama series, premiered its first episode to the United Kingdom via BBC One on January 15, 2012. Since then, the show has expanded to eleven seasons with over 90 episodes, and is currently in the midst of its twelfth season. The series was created by Heidi Thomas, who is also the show’s writer and executive producer (along with Pippa Harris), and is inspired by, and partially based on, the memoirs by Jennifer Worth. Past and present stars include Jessica Raine, Jenny Agutter, Miranda Hart, Helen George, Laura Main, Stephen McGann, and Leonie Elliott.

Season one follows the story of midwife Jenny Lee (the character based on Worth), who arrives at Nonnatus House—run by the Order of St. Raymond Nonnatus, an order of nursing nuns—unprepared for the poverty and terrible living conditions of London’s East End, in a neighborhood called ‘Poplar.’ Unprepared, too, however, is she for the warmth and sense of community she feels from both her colleagues and those they care for.

At Nonnatus, Jenny meets the diversely-characterized group of midwives and nuns, who despite coming from various socio-economic and geographic backgrounds, and having extremely different personality types, all have one thing in common—the desire to do the best they can for their patients.

Jenny departs at the end of season three to pursue work at a cancer hospice, but ‘Call the Midwife’ continues. We learn about the trials and tribulations of nurse-midwives such as Trixie, Cynthia, Phyllis, Barbara, Sister Julienne, Sister Monica Joan, and Shelagh. There are also the outside forces of Dr. Turner and Fred Buckle, who aid Nonnatus House in whatever ways they can.

And, of course, there are the patients. As the show’s name suggests, Nonnatus mainly serves the pregnant women of Poplar, helping them from conception to birth. They also provide care for outbreaks of disease, mysterious illnesses, and complex injuries. The community trusts them, often more than they do any hospital.

Nonnatus House’s occupants are constantly changing, welcoming new nurses and bidding others goodbye. As the cast changes, so do the times; the series progresses through times of thalidomide, tuberculosis, and the novelty of the contraceptive pill.

‘Call the Midwife’ is not afraid to show the gritty parts of childbirth, nor does it shy away from difficult and even controversial topics. We see women who suffer domestic violence, as well as those who desperately seek abortions despite the dangers and illegality. Racism, discrimination, and homophobia are all portrayed. Characters struggle with matters of adoption, addiction, and crises of faith.

‘Call the Midwife’ is not a grim show by any means, but it does not gloss over the realities of those who lived during the times.

I have been a fan of ‘Call the Midwife’ for many years; I’m not sure what it is that draws me in. Perhaps it’s because I find the characters vibrant or the dialogue realistic. Maybe it’s because, as Heidi Thomas put it, “[‘Call the Midwife’ is] telling stories about the human condition, and you can really engage with that, not just matters of society or medicine, but matters of human existence, life, death and birth.” Whatever the case, I would highly recommend the series.

You can watch ‘Call the Midwife’ on Netflix and PBS.

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