Brit Book Review: Jennifer Worth’s Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End


As promised, I am following up to my previous post regarding Call the Midwife.  I ordered Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End from when I couldn’t find them here in the U.S., and I have already devoured both.  While very similar in style to Call the Midwife, I found the stories to be darker, especially those in Shadows.  As an American, I honestly did not know workhouses existed in England until I read these books.  My understanding is that workhouses were made with good intentions, but over the years some became terrible due to the management of them.  While parts of the stories were literally hard to read because I found them so upsetting, I am glad to have been apprised of this piece of history.

I also was unaware how much people distrusted hospitals during this era until I read these novels.  While I have heard off and on throughout my life about errors made at hospitals or superbugs, etc., I have always thought a hospital would be the first place I would go in a medical emergency.  However, it was amazing to me to read the number of people in the midst of medical emergencies who refused to be taken to the hospital, or refused to allow their baby to be taken to one.

Farewell to the East End also described a lot about tuberculosis and how it devastated many families in the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s.  I found the stories to be very interesting, but again very serious and depressing.  While I don’t think the stories should be sugar-coated just to make for more pleasant reading, I personally enjoyed Call the Midwife the most in this trilogy because I saw more of the humanity of the stories included there than I did in most of Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End.  Granted, the story of Peggy and Frank in Shadows of the Workhouse was poignant and very humanizing of what workhouse life must have been like, and how it affected those who had been in one even once they were out.  Additionally, the trial of Sister Monica Joan was very entertaining and interesting to read, but also tinged with sadness regarding the Sister’s mental health.

I was glad of the opportunity to find out what happened to Chummy, most of the other nurses and midwives, and Jennifer herself in Farewell to the East End.  I won’t describe it all so as to ruin the stories for anyone who may have yet to read them.  If you happen to watch the show, please note that stories from all three are somewhat combined in the show, and not necessarily told in the same chronology as they are told in the books.  I highly recommend all three books, and myself have already purchased Worth’s In the Midst of Life to read as soon as I finish JK Rowling’s Casual Vacancy.

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  1. avatarDianne Sharples says

    Sarah is defining my reading list for me. Now I have to read them all! I enjoyed Call the Midwife and am looking forward to reading the others. I’m glad, though, to have a warning that the next two are darker. Parts of Call the Midwife were also pretty dark!