"Midwifery is as old a profession as prostitution. In fact, I'm not sure which came first," proclaims Jennifer Worth unexpectedly. It's a typically down-to-earth comment from the author of Call The Midwife, by turns a humorous, moving and shocking account of her life as a midwife in the East End of London 50 years ago.
The book is being hailed as doing for Ms Worth's profession what James Herriot did for vets, a compliment that leaves her glowing. "I read this article in the Midwives Journal in 1998, which pointed out that there was virtually nothing about midwives in literature - a couple of mentions in Chekhov, but virtually nothing else, and none of it treated midwives as people," she explains. "The last line in the article said, what we need is someone like James Herriot." It was an irresistible challenge, and the feisty former midwife immediately put pen to paper.
The result is a book journalist and commentator Matthew Parris says made him cry in a train carriage. Rogues, scoundrels, saintly nuns and jovial gels populate the pages. But most vivid of all are the mothers Jennifer helped.
These are women like Molly, beaten and degraded by her thug of a husband, struggling to bring up three children in a dirt-poor house; Mrs Jenkins, an aged pauper driven half mad by the death of her children in the poor house years earlier; Concita, mother of 25 children, whose maternal instinct prevents a terrible tragedy; and tragic 14-year-old Mary, forced into prostitution after she runs away from her abusive family.
Jennifer still feels huge affection and admiration for these women all these years later. "They worked so hard," she says with feeling. "I think they were heroines. There was a woman with syphilis: I ended up thinking God this woman is a heroine. She lived in squalid circumstances, looking after all those kids, with a husband in and out of prison, and yet she was always cheerful. I thought she was an old slag at first, but I soon changed my mind." The words "old slag" sound odd in Jennifer's clipped English, but there is no mistaking the admiration behind her words.
Admiration also comes across in Jennifer's descriptions of the nuns who taught her midwifery at Nonnatus House, the fictional name given her East End training hospital.
The nuns are not the sanctified, ethereal creatures of religious hagiography, nor are they the monstrous creatures, bitter and repressed, often depicted in modern fiction and memoirs. Sister Monica Joan, Sister Evangelina and the sage Sister Julienne are defined by their vulnerabilities and human faults as much by their very real godliness. Sister Monica is a muttering mystic with a nose for fresh cakes and a waspish wit. Sister Evangelina seems humourless, but is compassionate, can fart on demand and is deeply loved by the locals. Father Joseph Williamson has devoted his life to helping prostitutes escape the sordid world of the streets, and does so with Christ-like forbearance.
The nuns had a powerful influence on the young Jennifer, and in its quiet way, the book documents her spiritual journey. "They were holy people. You have to be in contact with pure goodness before you can see what true religion is," she says. Recalling Sister Julienne with affection, she adds: "She was my guide and mentor all through my life until she died in 1986."
Jennifer kept in touch with many of the nurses she trained with, including her best friend Cynthia (who died recently) and the wonderful Camilla Fortescue-Cholmeley-Browne, better known as Chummy.
As game as a hockey mistress, Chummy, undimmed by the jibes of local children or personal failure, is the personification of a type of woman sadly missed. "Yes, yes, I agree," says Jennifer. "Chummy comes into the third book in the trilogy. She turns out to be a real heroine." The second book, Shadows of the Workhouse, will bring to life the terrible situations of people post-War left scarred by the appalling workhouses (though they closed in 1935, they left a horrific legacy).
Men appear in more than walk-on roles in the book. The saddest is Jimmy, on whom the young Jennifer had a crush. Full of life and mischief, he is central to the kind of stories your gran likes to shock you with in case you forget she was once a bright young thing too.Years later Jennifer saw Jimmy, who had been forced to give up his apprenticeship as an architect after getting a girl "in trouble". He looked cowed, walking behind a battleaxe of a wife, as she barked orders. His spirit was broken. It is one of the most poignant scenes in the book.
How did Jennifer feel summoning these ghosts from her past? "I loved writing it, because they all came back to me so vividly. I could hear the Cockney voices," Jennifer admits. Friends helped her clarify details, and she also used local archives to research the broader background to the book.
The voices were welcome for more than one reason: she loves the Cockney dialect, so much so that there is an appendix about it. "When I first wrote the book I wrote as best I could in Cockney, but a couple of people I know said, you can't write like this, as it is like another language. It is another language. Children had to learn a second language when they went to school, but I love it."
As a memorial to a bygone age and reminder of how much better the lives of women are in the 21st century, Call The Midwife is an evocative read. It is also a book stuffed full of compassion and humour, and though Jennifer would rail against a return to the old days, she is happy to remind readers about the value of community - especially that army of women who make our lives better. Does she feel she has achieved her goal of putting midwives on the literary map? "Yes, I think I have, most definitely," she says smiling.