Pop Culture Advisory: Midwives’ Tales

Call the Midwife is almost back! The nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House—if, indeed, that’s what they still call themselves after the demolition of their beloved, but structurally unsound, convent—will return to PBS on March 30.

Neal Wyatt made some suggestions for similar titles after the first season aired, but there are plenty more for fans to enjoy.

9780143123255_p0_v2_s260x420First, of course, are Jennifer Worth’s memoirs, on which the series was based. The Midwife Trilogy is comprised of Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, and Farewell to the East End. An abridged omnibus edition is available, as are audio productions from HighBridge.

Sadly, Worth passed away less than a year before the show based on her experiences aired in Britain. She did have a hand in some of the casting, however, and was responsible for Miranda Hart being hired as Camilla “Chummy” Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne. Americans who’ve come to love Hart as the warm, awkward, posh, and absolutely wonderful Chummy will rejoice to learn that that the comedienne has a radio program, Miranda Hart’s Joke Shop, that’s available on CD; an autobiography, Is It Just Me?; and a sitcom, Miranda.

While most of the cast will be unfamiliar to those who lack familiarity with British television and theater, Jenny Agutter (Sister Julienne) may by recognized by fans of An American Werewolf in London (she played Nurse Alex Price), Logan’s Run (in which she was Jessica 6), or Walkabout, the critically acclaimed 1971 film about children lost in the Australian Outback.

Viewers who wish to learn more about the show’s East End setting may enjoy Gilda O’Neill’s My East End: A History of Cockney London, Alan Warwick Parker’s The East End: Four Centuries of London Life, or Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi’s The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle’s East End.

Those with more interest in the birth stories would likely appreciate any—or all—of these works:

  • The documentary Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives, which tells the story of counterculture heroine Gaskin and her friends, who founded a commune, The Farm, in rural Tennessee in the 1970s. The women taught themselves midwifery, delivered each other’s babies, and founded the Farm Clinic, whose principles have had profound effects on the childbirth experiences of thousands of women.
  • A Midwife’s Tale by  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, along with its American Experience interpretation, tells the story of American Revolution-era Martha Ballard, a midwife who never lost a mother’s life in more than 1,000 deliveries. Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of Ballard used the midwife’s diary as source material. The documentary tells Ballad’s story through reenacted scenes, readings from her diary and interviews with Ulrich.
  • Onnie Lee Logan’s Motherwit is the autobiography of a woman who served as midwife to poor, rural women in Alabama from approximately 1925 to 1984.
  • A Midwife’s Story by Penny Armstrong, a first-hand account of the author’s journey from student midwife in Glasgow to running her own practice among the Amish in rural Pennsylvania. (The Amish Midwife by Mindy Starns Clark and Leslie Gould is a fictional treatment of a similar story.)
  • Ricki Lake’s The Business of Being Born and the film’s follow up, Breastmilk, will be of interest to patrons more concerned with modern-day birth stories.
  • Chris Bohjalian’s novel Midwives is a gripping mystery surrounding the trial of a Vermont-based, 1980s midwife who performs an emergency C-section at a home birth, believing the mother to be dead, only to be accused of her murder.
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Stephanie Klose About Stephanie Klose

Stephanie Klose (sklose@mediasourceinc.com, @sklose on Twitter) is Media Editor, Library Journal.


  1. Thanks for the great column. Call me Midwife has been very popular in our central Iowan town. Ina May Gaskin from Birth Story was born in Marshalltown and we showed the documentary last year at our local art house. We drew a great crowd of women of all ages and a few brave men. A special note for us is that Ina May’s sister is a longtime employee of the Marshalltown Public Library!

  2. rgraham says:

    I recently watched a series called London Hospital on Amazon. It’s set from 1906-1909 and shows the world of medicine in the East End before the National Health Service and before antibiotics. Very compelling and well made. (It was apparently called Casualty 1906, 1907 and 1909 when it aired in the UK.) It is based on actual stories, diaries, etc. from the time.

    • Liz French says:

      Patricia Harman’s The Reluctant Midwife (Morrow, Mar. 2015) features a …well, reluctant midwife…circa 1930s, and The Secrets of Midwives (St. Martin’s, Feb. 2015) is contemporary and has a family of midwives….with…wait for it! secrets! Quite a trend, seems to be going strong.