After reading The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, I picked up this sequel expecting to read, as I did in the first book, some fairly graphic childbirth scenes, even perhaps some upsetting stories where either mother or baby died, as well as many humorous and uplifting vignettes, too. Shadows of the Workhouse has some of all of those elements, and is in many ways a continuation of themes from The Midwife, of course. But what I found heart-breaking in this second installment had little to do with birth or even death. It was, instead, the way people lived that broke my heart and the goodness and joy they found in spite of horrific conditions that gave me hope.
Unlike the previous book, which tells many shorter stories of both life in the convent and medical cases in the community, Shadows of the Workhouse, focuses primarily on three overarching stories, told in succession. The first describes the workhouse system, predominant in the later part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. While workhouses can be seen as "the first attempt at social welfare" in the United Kingdom and "in this respect it was nearly one hundred years ahead of its time", they way they operated in actual practice was almost always degrading, dehumanizing, and impossible to escape from. Families with no other option than to enter the workhouse were separated, not only husbands and wives, but children from their parents, literally to never see each other again. The conditions Ms. Worth describes are deplorable and heart-wrenching.
For example, in The Midwife, Ms. Worth tells the story of a Mrs. Jenkins who went to the workhouse after her husband's death had left her unable to provide for her five children, all of whom died in the workhouse before reaching adulthood. Her experiences in the workhouse left her out of touch with reality, frequently addressing her dead daughter and refusing any hygiene or medical care. Shadows of the Workhouse shares many more desperately sad stories including the story of a little girl named Jane who is brutally beaten for holding on to the dream that her rich father will some day rescue her from the bleakness of the workhouse. Her spirit is broken and the bright, eager, and exuberant child she was is replaced by a perpetually nervous and terrified one who still as an adult struggles with debilitating fear.
In the midst of the bleakness, however, there are hopeful rays of light. A young boy, Frank, is placed in a workhouse with his younger sister, Peggy, after their mother's death. When he turns seven, he is sent to a different workhouse to be with the "big boys", leaving his three-year-old sister behind. Both are devastated by the separation. A few years later, Frank is fortunate enough to be apprenticed to a costermonger, or fish seller, and escape the workhouse. As a teenager, he tracks down his sister and, after saving money for several more years, convinces the workhouse's Board of Directors to allow Peggy to leave the workhouse and come live with him. They spend the rest of their lives together, taking care of each other. "Love permeated every nook and cranny, every corner and crevice of that little house. You could feel it as soon as you entered the front door, like a presence so tangible you could almost reach out and touch it."
The final narrative in Shadows of the Workhouse concerns Mr. Joseph Collett, an old, lonely man. Jenny Lee meets him when she does a home visit to care for his ulcerated legs, and gradually their friendship grows as she visits on an almost daily basis for many weeks. In the course of their conversations, she discovers that he was a soldier in the Boer War in South Africa, where more than three-quarters of his division was killed. And then he lost his two sons, both in the trenches in World War I. His wife was killed in a firebombing during World War II and his last surviving child, Shirley, died a couple of years later when a rocket destroyed the headquarters where she was stationed. He was left utterly alone. As Mr. Collett says, "War brutalises a man" in unfathomable ways.
As Jenny listens to his stories, she comes to care for this gentle, lonely man. She visits him in the evening frequently, just to enjoy his company and a glass of sherry. His delight at these visits buoy Jenny up as well. She accompanies him to the Old Guards' reunion dinner where he is recognized and honored for his service. When his building is condemned and he is evicted from his bug-infested apartment, she promises to visit him at the retirement home where he is being moved, only to be horrified at the impersonal conditions and the downturn his health has taken. One of the nuns, Sister Julienne, tries to comfort Jenny explaining, "The tragedy is loneliness, not the surroundings." When he passes away shortly thereafter, Jenny grieves for him as she has for few other patients, and I grieved with her. The stark loneliness Mr. Collett felt was lightened by Jenny's friendship, and her life was impacted for good by his.
"Nursing is one of the most satisfying jobs in the world," Ms. Worth declares. Being a nurse and midwife, present for both first breaths and final breaths, must provide such an intimate window into people's lives, and real human connections and insights that can be gained in few other ways. I'm grateful Ms. Worth shared her stories with us. They move me to be more aware of and more compassionate toward others, perhaps especially those I'm least inclined to reach out to at first glance.
Shadows of the Workhouse
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