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Unpublished words tell us more of the midwife: new book gives fresh insight into the life of Hemel Hempstead author Jennifer Worth

Jennifer Worth

Jennifer Worth

The infamous Magic Roundabout, the 2005 Buncefield explosion, even a sudden sinkhole – that’s what usually leaps to mind in the wider world when the name of Hemel Hempstead is mentioned.

But a certain Boxmoor author is arguably the most famous of all the town’s exports – and the one female to place it firmly on the cultural map of Britain.

Her books have all been bestsellers, and she has single-handedly raised the profile of the medical practices of nursing and midwifery into mainstream consciousness.

Now, almost three years after she lost a short – but extremely valiant – battle with cancer, a fifth book by Jennifer Worth delves even further into the life we have come to know through her works and their adaptation into popular BBC television drama Call The Midwife.

In the stunning ‘White House’ home on St John’s Road where Jennifer lived and died, the fire roars and casts flickers over the myriad portraits – some of the author herself and some by her husband, Philip, now 80.

He sits opposite his and Jennifer’s eldest daughter, Suzannah Hart, 49, and both delight in talking about the woman whose energy and whimsy created the phenomenon which has made her a household name.

According to Suzannah, Jennifer had never wanted to be an author, but was inspired by an article for the Royal College of Midwives which argued that the profession had been under-represented in literature.

With colourful experience in London’s East End and an artistic flair only previously displayed through her music, the mother of two thought she would be the perfect person to do for midwifery what writer and vet James Herriot had done for veterinary science.

“She saw the article and it sparked her off,” Suzannah recalls.“Her memories came flooding back. But it was only from reading the books ourselves that we ever learned about her past.”

Though she was already in her 60s by this point, Jennifer used a foundtain pen to painstakingly wrote out every volume of the Call the Midwife trilogy in beautiful longhand – which itself appears at the start of every BBC episode.

Husband Philip, now 80, typed up the manuscripts, completing only one draft copy before the author made minor amendments.

He said: “It was a challenge, and she was always up for a challenge.

“Midwifery was just one of many aspects of her life, but she was a caring nurse through and through. It was that aspect of her profession that really meant something to her.

“I think her creative side had been dormant – it was there but needed some kind of stimulus to set it off.”

Jennifer retired from midwifery in 1973 after becoming disillusioned with changes to the NHS, and went on to teach music.

Her books, which she began writing in 2002, are based on the time she spent working as a midwife and district nurse for Sisters of St John the Divine in Whitechapel – the real-life inspiration behind the TV show’s Nonnatus House.

She also penned a fourth book, In The Midst of Life, in which she challenged views on palliative care and controversially questioned whether death should have to be medicated. Determined Jennifer faced her own illness untreated and died peacefully, surrounded by family, at home.

Though she didn’t live to see filming begin on the television series which translated her words and memories to the small screen, Jennifer had always pictured comedienne Miranda Hart in the role of her friend Chummy – who features in the memoirs – and wrote to her to tell her so.

Miranda did indeed take on the part of ‘fish out of water’ Chummy, and has contributed the foreword to the latest literary release – a collection of correspondence with Jennifer entitled Letters To The Midwife.

The actress wrote: “Jennifer portrayed such vivid pictures of an extraordinary time in British history and of truly extraordinary women. Sadly, I never got to meet Jennifer. I wish I had. To have been able to thank her.”

Along with messages from her fans who share their own midwifery experiences and 1950s London memories, Letters To The Midwife also contains chapters of previously unpublished writings by Jennifer.

And it reveals details of a love affair with an older, married man – a relationship which was to have a lasting effect on her whole life.

Suzannah said: “It is a real gem of a book. I am sure had she lived there would have been more writing – I hope the book satisfies that hole.”

She, along with father Philip and her sister Juliette Walton, 47, co-wrote the introduction to the new book, in which they describe her as ‘a truly remarkable woman’ who was ‘always surprising’.

The family continues to hosts talks about the inspirational woman they so dearly loved, and clearly still admire.

Philip believes she would be pleased by the legacy she has left for not only her town, but also her profession and even the canon of British literature.

He said: “She would be pleased that we are doing all of this – she would like to think that her memory is living on, and we are making sure of that.”

 

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