Shadows of the Workhouse

The book for Book Club in March is Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth, who also wrote Call The Midwife, now a BBC series. I know something about workhouses and the conditions that inmates experienced, the values that inspired them and some of the reasons why they didn’t work. I was interested in reading this but I didn’t pay too much attention beyond the title and I think this is another example where my expectations didn’t align with what the book is.

The first three chapters tell the stories of three people who grew up in workhouses, their experiences there and how it affected the rest of their lives. Then there is the story of the kleptomaniac nun . And lastly the long story of a lonely old man whom the author was friends with and who ended his days in a home in a building that used to be a workhouse.

While Jennifer Worth does give some background into the establishment of workhouses, which was very interesting, this is not a book that will tell you anything about the structure of a society that brought these places into being. Neither does it examine the legacy that the workhouse has left us, except in the most personal sense. Worth touches on the values and attitudes that create beliefs that the poor must be punished, that being destitute must be so awful that it inspires people to better themselves, that ending up in a workhouse is a failure of character. This is fascinating for me and I can see echoes of those beliefs in contemporary attitudes towards people on benefits, but this is not explored. It’s not an intellectual book.

What it is, is memoir. I’m not a fan of memoir or biography; I find that focussing on an individual’s story loses sight of the bigger picture and to me that’s more interesting. But besides being memoir, this is a version of misery-lit. The pain is not the author’s own but it is presented in the same gratuitous way. I have a wide contrarian streak and I resent being told what to feel in such a heavy-handed way. The stories that Worth tells are tragic. She tells them in a way that I find sentimental. We are supposed to be shocked and appalled and to see the perpetrators as evil. For me, sentiment is the enemy of compassion; it romanticizes tragedy and removes the call to action. Instead, the reader is invited to feel self-satisfied and righteous.

One other thing that I found unsettling was the lack of any mention of where these stories had come from. Worth lived with the people she writes about and it is her memory of what happened and who they were. But in some instances she recounts events that happen to the person at an age where memory would not have been formed, so I suspect the stories came from somewhere else. Where? Without an understanding of the context in which these stories were relayed to the author, and given the fact that she is writing fifty years on from the period the book covers, I find it hard to know what is fact and what is interpretation. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as this is memoir and is one person’s perception, but for me it lacks seriousness. Perhaps that’s my intellectual snobbery showing. On the plus side, I am rather motivated to learn more about the legacy of the workhouse. Unless your bookshelves are filled with misery-porn I’d give this a miss.

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