Sister of Call the Midwife author Jennifer Worth reveals all about the day their childhood happiness crumbled around them
- Credit: Archant
The author of Call the Midwife - Jennifer Worth - was born at Clacton-on-Sea and spent childhood holidays there before the bottom fell out of her world.
Here her sister Christine shares details about the years before Jennifer Lee, as she was then, discovered her calling in life. Steven Russell reports.
“Mother Elsie was a charming, flirtatious and pretty girl with an hourglass figure. Little wonder she caught the eye of Gordon,” said Christine.
Over Christmas, 1934, the couple disappeared to Folkestone. All hell broke loose and, upon their return, Elsie’s father threw Gordon out of the house. But Elsie’s mother was soon arranging a summer wedding, for a baby was on the way.
“It was such a disgrace in 1935,” writes Christine. “Since my grandmother did not want people to know her daughter was expecting a baby prior to her marriage, a few weeks before the baby was due she took my mother away to Clacton, where my sister Jennifer arrived on September 25, 1935 – nine months to the day after Christmas.
“My mother was twenty, my father twenty-three.”
Jennifer and Christine’s father later bought a holiday bungalow at Jaywick Sands, near Clacton and the family returned there for many happy holidays.
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But returning home from one holiday, they discovered a scene that would scar their childhood forever more.
The sisters knew something was wrong as soon as they were dropped off at home in Buckinghamshire, by an aunt, after the seaside break.
“Ours was a house always filled with life – laughter, singing and the sound of the wireless,” Christine will recall. Now, all they can hear is the ticking of a clock. “It was as if we had come to the wrong place.”
Jennifer has just turned 10 and Christine is seven back in the autumn of 1945.
Elsie, their mum, had been in Essex for the first few days of the holiday. Gordon, their dad, stayed at home because of work. Missing her husband, Elsie decided to return early and surprise him. The girls stayed on with their aunts. But when they get back, the house is empty. The sisters go to their grandmother’s home, opposite. She tells them their mother is ill, but doesn’t give details. Their father arrives later. He also doesn’t explain anything.
“We knew that whatever had occurred had to be serious. What we didn’t know was that our childhood as we had known it was over,” Christine writes in her memoir.
They come to understand their mother is in hospital. She returns after a few days, a shadow of her former self. Christine remembers that “we found her propped up in bed, unable to move her left arm, her beautiful face twisted and ugly. She battled to talk, but could hardly speak… For us, accustomed to seeing her full of life and laughter, finding her bedridden and helpless, her lovely face nothing like it had been, was utterly shocking.”
It took years to piece together the story. Elsie had come home from Jaywick Sands to find her husband in bed with his secretary. She collapsed, suffering a severe stroke that almost killed her. The marriage began to disintegrate, although Christine believes her parents never stopped loving each other. “My mother was certainly fond of saying ‘There are far worse things in life than adultery, my dear.’”
The following January the sisters were taken to a boarding school. Christine describes a cold, austere, sometimes cruel existence. Her sister, “not a naughty child but a free spirit”, rebelled. Expulsion was blessed relief. They returned to their old school.
“There was no house by the sea any more. It had been sold to one of my aunts, but Jennifer and I never went there again.”
Christine’s book, The Midwife’s Sister, charts the years, including her mother’s second marriage – which brought more unhappiness for her daughters – her father’s new wife and the arrival of two half-sisters.
Jennifer was kicked out of the house, aged just 14, after domestic tensions boiled. She stayed with cousins, did a typing course in London, lied about her age and got a job as secretary to a headmaster. Deeply in love, she had an affair with her married employer.
When Christine left school she ended up as a laboratory assistant.
Jennifer began nursing training in Reading and, after a couple of other jobs, her sister followed her to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in 1957. Jennifer still dreamed of marriage to the headmaster, though it was never going to happen. An excellent nurse, she was coming to the end of her training when she had a wobble and smacked a misbehaving child.
Matron dismissed her on the spot. She left without a word to her sister. They wouldn’t have any contact for ages. Christine later concluded Jennifer had probably felt ashamed, feeling she had let down her sibling.
Christine, meanwhile, knew her own heart wasn’t in nursing. When her doctor boyfriend proposed, she said yes. They married in 1959 – and Jennifer suddenly appeared for the ceremony, “tall and elegant… It was the first time I had set eyes on her in more than a year”. After being dismissed she’d spent time in Paris, waitressed in Blackpool, and started midwifery training in London.
Jennifer had chosen to spend six months in the East End. “Arriving in Poplar on her first day, she had no idea she was in fact knocking on the door of a convent, not a hospital – nor that the Anglican Nursing Sisters of St John the Divine would have such a profound and lasting impact on her life.”
Christine writes: “While working with the nuns, she learned to respect the power of prayer and was drawn by the tranquillity that seemed to emanate from the sisters. In the end, though, the life of a nun was not for her. ‘I could do poverty and chastity, Chris, but never, ever obedience!’ she said.” Jennifer was working at a maternity home near Hampstead in the 1960s when she took in a lodger, Philip Worth. Lodger and landlady married in 1963 and a daughter was born the following year.
Christine, a grandmother of 10, is frank about her own life: four marriages; many house moves; three children; finding her calling as a sculptor (she’s still working); health battles. The relationship with her sister was loving but bumpy. Christine remembers the significance of that time with the convent. “To my great shock, she told me that the nuns were now her family, and God her father. The sisters now came first, before me and our parents... and from then on it was as if she became withdrawn and kept her real family at a distance. It was so painful... We were both escaping from our past traumas and trying to find meaning in life.”
The sisters’ father died in 1977 and their mother the following year. Jennifer bought a flat in Brighton as a holiday home. It was there she’d write most of her books, and be near the sea. “I know how she felt, as our happiest times as children were spent on the beach at Jaywick Sands,” says Christine. Of their relationship, she writes: “Our love was the thread that tied us to one another. Flimsy, seemingly in danger of snapping under pressure at times, but unbroken.” As the chasm appeared to widen, though, Jennifer became closer to Christine’s daughter, Joanna, “and I realized I was jealous. I wanted that same closeness’.” Over time, Joanna became the person in whom Jennifer confided. “When she was due to spend three days in hospital for a heart procedure it was Jo she told, while her husband and children were kept entirely in the dark.”
Christine explains: “It was during the writing of this book that my daughter told me of much that she and Jennifer had shared, and so I finally came to learn the painful truth... When Joanna revealed that all through Jennifer’s life she had felt eclipsed by me whenever I walked into a room. I was utterly horrified. Simply by virtue of my being the person I am, and looking as I do, my sister had felt diminished.
“My mother had planted this seed when we were children. Hearing this made me feel unbearably sad...” (Elsie would say “Jennifer’s the clever one, Chris is the pretty one”.)
“For years, I had wondered why I could not get near my sister, and had never felt able to ask her. The wall she constructed around herself was too solid to breach. Now I understood why she was so remote. She was much too proud to ever have told me how she really felt. What I can say is that even knowing what I do now does not change the way I feel about her. I loved her, and I know that she loved me.”
Jennifer was in her 60s when she began drawing on her experiences and wrote Call the Midwife, the first in the trilogy that spawned the TV series. “Although I knew she was writing, I did not know precisely what the book would be about until it was published in 2002,” says Christine in her book.
Four years ago this month, Jennifer was diagnosed with advanced cancer of the oesophagus. She declined treatment and sought to die in peace.
Christine spent several hours at her sister’s bedside in Hertfordshire that spring. They couldn’t stop talking. “It was easy between us. Once again, we were children playing on the beach at Jaywick Sands; two sisters who related to, and loved, each other.” When she left that day, “The pain of knowing I was losing her was indescribable. Outside, in the car, I sat and wept. I drove a little way down the road and stopped and wept some more.”
Jennifer Worth died on the last day of May, 2011. She was 75.
Her sister still feels her presence strongly. “I find myself wanting to pick up the phone and have one of our frustrating conversations in which, very often, so little of any importance was said.”
She adds: “When Jennifer was alive, I wanted to cry out to her to talk to me. Perhaps she felt the same. Or perhaps she understood – as I do now – that it was what was unsaid, rather than any words that passed between us, that mattered the most. A deep and enduring love.”
The Butlin’s rollerskating rink in Clacton is behind Christine’s ever-lasting scars
Christine Lee has a permanent reminder of those magical childhood holidays in Essex – scars on her knees from hours of illicit fun on Butlin’s rollerskating rink in Clacton!
Closed after the outbreak of war, it was discovered by Christine and Jennifer. Too tempting. “We just climbed over the rails and found all these rusting skates hanging out of the cupboards. And so we decided to try them!” Christine said.
The sisters – “two very different little girls with a shared sense of fun and a strong bond” – pulled on some of the skates, clung to each other and tried to move around the rink. Without much success. They fell again and again, banging hands and scraping knees. Back at the bungalow, their mother didn’t chide them. The pair were encouraged to plug away – and before too long were whizzing around that rink. Mind you, as Christine says, “I’ve still got the scars on my knees!”
Those trips to Essex really were wonderful – usually beginning with an open-top car ride. The girls would stand on the back seat – this was before seat-belts! – laughing and singing. At Jaywick they’d run along the wide and empty beaches, swim amid big waves, build huge sandcastles, bury themselves in the sand, toss seaweed about and gather shells.
Christine would catch little crabs in rock-pools and chase her sister, for Jennifer hated them – “the only power I ever had over my big sister”! Jaywick was pretty quiet then, in wartime. “The big excitement was when the ice-cream man came on his bicycle. He had a metal contraption with which he used to make wafers. We’d stand in a queue and it would take him quite a long time to make each one, so you’d get more and more excited.
“The other thing in Jaywick was an amusement arcade which we did not visit very frequently but we thought it was splendid! It was very basic.” There was a machine that flicked through photographs so fast that it looked like a movie, and a machine with a metal arm to grab prizes – if you were lucky.
Christine – who lives on Devon’s Jurassic coast – also remembers swimming in the cold and sometimes wild North Sea from a young age. “Someone said to me the other day about my great survival skills. I think they probably started off at Jaywick Sands!”
The Midwife’s Sister is published by Pan Books at £7.99