Book Review – Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth

shadowsoftheworkhouse1Title: Shadows of the Workhouse

Author: Jennifer Worth

Year written: 2005

Publisher and year: Phoenix, 2013

ISBN Number: 978-1-7802-2511-1

I love the show Call the Midwife and as soon as I found out it was based on books I thought they’d be worth looking at. In the end I found the first two in a sale on The Works website and so I jumped on them. They’ve been sitting in my bookshelves for a while now but after reading the first one last week I wanted to carry straight onto the second one this week. It wasn’t the original plan but I enjoyed the first so much and had the second it seemed to make sense.shadowsoftheworkhouse2

This copy of the book was published a year after the previous one I reviewed though this doesn’t have the cast on the front. It has photos of the versions I have seen around more on the back, I think they tie into each other better. I haven’t seen either of the later two books from the series in the same style as this or the first though it may be that they’re just less common in book stores. I do like the look of this with the colour photo that has a filter on it to make the colours more muted.

This books is the second in the series written about Jennifer Worth’s (at the time Lee’s) life as a midwife. This was written about her time in London in Poplar with the nuns and midwives living in Nonnatus House (she replaced the original place name) and her time caring for the people in the area. This books focusses more on the district nurse aspect of the job and the majority of it is about the stories of the people she met. I don’t remember any stories of childbirth in this at all and quite a bit of it isn’t written as if Jenny is talking. It’s like she’s writing the stories of the people from an outside perspective, at least for the first section where there is no mention of someone telling her the information or how she came to know it. In fact it takes 98 pages for the characters introduced in the first book and recognisable from the TV series to appear.

There’s a three year gap between the original publication of the first and the second books and there’s a difference in the two books in the layout and storytelling but this one is also in the informal style and it still reminds me of the way that grandparents tell you a story with the occasional bit of backstory here and there then wandering back to the story. This one was more focussed and had some obvious storylines that flowed between the chapters more than the previous one so it seemed like in between writing the two books she found a writing style she liked that meant she could go more in depth in each of the stories.

The book is split into three very separate sections; ‘Workhouse Children’, ‘The Trial of Sister Monica Joan’ and ‘The Old Soldier’. All three of these sections has one story (or in the case of the first section two) flowing through the chapters. It’s still broken into fairly short chapters within these sections, between ten and fifteen pages each, but it’s less likely to be a book I’d pick up and read a chapter then put it down or have it as a short read in a break. I’ll go through each of the sections and try not to include anything that would be a spoiler beyond what is written in the blurb on the back, there’s a fair bit on there for anyone who’s seen the TV series as saying a name will tell the reader the story.

The first part, ‘Workhouse Children,’ has two main stories, the first is Jane who grew up in the workhouse and is in the second series of Call the Midwife. There are a few tweaks to the story in there compared to the book but the general storyline is the same. This is one of the stories where you first meet her has a young girl and see her as she grows up rather than as an adult in the TV series. It’s fairly graphic at times about workhouse punishments but nothing too gory. The second half of this part is about Peggy and Frank, and this is another where you see them grow up and see their backstory rather than their time when Jenny is there. This is pretty much the same as their storyline in the first series on TV but there’s less detail in the book version to me.

‘The Trial of Sister Monica Joan’ is a section which has a pretty self-explanatory title. It is all written in the time that Jenny Lee is there and from her perspective though there are stories from Sister Monica Joan which give her a bit of a background, I think quite a bit of that is spread throughout the series of Call the Midwife on TV. It’s a lot more in detail than the episode in the TV series and it did seem to drag on a bit at times. I think this may be more for me as I knew the story already and it was a slower paced story than the others.

The final section ‘The Old Soldier’ is all written around Joe, a character from the first series of Call the Midwife and I think that episode is probably one of my favourites. This, like the first section, focusses a lot on his past though in this section it’s written as he’s telling her. It was nice having the backstory and it’s probably the most action packed and graphic of the sections with mentions of war and death though not written in a way that makes it a focus, it’s just something that happened. I think this was my favourite chapter though I was probably influenced by the fact I like the original episode.

This book also has the photos that the first one did, they’re different photos and are all based on workhouse life. There’s also some references to the stories in the sentences beneath the photos to tie them into the different stories in the book. There are no appendices but there’s a reference guide and there’s no need for a glossary as there’s nothing that’s overly medical. I don’t remember any medical tools or procedures being mentioned that people wouldn’t know what they were or that have had their names changed since.

I definitely think this book is worth a read if you like the TV series, there’s quite a bit of background on some of the smaller parts within the TV series that got one episode. It does almost feel like it could be three small, shorter books as there are the three different writing styles as in the perspective you’re reading the stories from. All the language and the informal tone is there throughout and they do link into each other in a way but it feels less like a lot of short stories she’s telling us about her life and more like writing for a book. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily, it’s just different.

There are some warnings possibly for this book, there’s death and war in the final part and there are mentions or references to incest in another part though it isn’t sensationalised in either instance. I’m not sure if they really are warnings but thought they’re worth mentioning in case they’re something that would really put you off a book.

Overall if you like the TV series or are a fan of non fiction books based in the period then I think this would be worth a look. It has some interesting facts and background about life for the working class and poor in the early 1900s. It doesn’t have as much of a focus on the midwifery aspect so if that’s what you want to read about then maybe give this one a skip but the stories of people’s lives are really interesting to me and the workhouse aspect reminds me of some Dickens stories but in a more realistic way that makes it easier for me to picture.

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