Jean Fullerton on Call the Midwife and her new series, beginning with Call Nurse Millie
RL: Call the Midwife and you are a natural match. Did the success of the TV show lead directly to your writing Call Nurse Millie, or was this idea already up your sleeve?
JF: It was a bit of both really. I’d read Jennifer Worth’s books when they were first published from a nurse history point of view. I did think they were both a terrific story and a wonderful study of social conditions of the period but it was only when the Head of Fiction at Orion, Susan Lamb, approached me to write Call Nurse Millie that I considered jumping out of the Victorian period into the post-war East London.
RL: To what do you attribute Call the Midwife‘s success?
JF: I think people like the feeling of community that is portrayed in Call the Midwife as well as the nostalgia for a period when the world wasn’t as complicated as it is now. It’s also a chance to relive the stories our grandparents told us when we were children and to perhaps wonder how we would have coped with some of the harsh realities of life then.
RL: Millie is a district nurse, not a midwife – but in what other ways does the world of your novel differ from the world that the TV fans will know?
JF: Well actually, Millie is a district nurse, midwife, school nurse and health visitor. Call Nurse Millie pre-dates Call the Midwife by ten years and the NHS by three. At this time district nurse service were provided by a local District Nurse Association. These were local mutual beneficial societies whose funding came from council contracts, for school nurse services and basic maternity plus public donations. They couldn’t afford to have specialist nurses so pre-NHS nurses had to be jack-of-all-trade. Of course this was perfect for me as a writer as I was able to have Millie treating old and young alike.
JF: Oddly none at all. I’m still writing about my home territory and the same streets in fact. I’ve even revisited locations. When Millie’s mother moves to Wapping I put her in the same house that Ellen O’Casey occupied in No Cure for Love. Alex Nolan, the hero in Call Nurse Millie, is in fact, the great grandson of Patrick Nolan the hero of A Glimpse at Happiness. I’ve also drawn on my parents’ experiences. For example Alex’s backstory of the 8th Army in North Africa was in fact my dad’s army service and Millie’s friend Connie’s preparations for her wedding was just what my aunt Martha did before her husband-to-be came home. The research is the same too; reading first-hand accounts of the period except this time it’s the Mass Observation Diaries and Family and Kinship in East London rather than Travels in the East by Dickens or Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.
JF: I have. By one of those lucky happenchances my husband met a couple researching their family history and discovered that the wife’s mother, Doreen Bates, had been a district nurse in East London during and just after the war. I’ve spent several happy hours with Doreen drinking tea and comparing the district nursing now with the way Doreen used to work.
I’ve amassed a huge collection of nursing, midwifery and medical text books, some of which are not for the faint-hearted, I’ve used them to add authenticity the lotions and potions and procedures. I think I’ve also read every 20th century nurse biography there is including some unpublished oral accounts held in the Queen’s Institute archives.
RL: You will (of course) know the procedural differences for nurses now than for nurses then. Which of these do you choose to show, and why?
JF: Weaving in period details is very difficult and can tie you in knots. I wanted to show how important radio was in everyday life during the late 40s and spent hours searching for the correct timing for programmes like Workers’ Playtime and ITMA. There is always the temptation just to explain the way the war-time rationing worked – instead of showing through dialogue how pregnant and nursing women had green ration cards.
For the nursing detail I have Millie putting old newspaper under the bed sheet to absorb moisture, soaking her glass thermometer in Dettol, re-corking the bottle of iodine and rubbing surgical spirit on a patient’s sacral area to toughen the skin. I also have her standing up when the matron walks in to the room and worrying if Alex Nolan, who she’s terribly keen on, will think she’s fast if she lets him kiss her on their third date.
If you want your reader to lose themselves in your story you have to wrap it around them like a warm blanket not lecture them.
RL: Aside from the nursing, what other aspects of post-war London did you find it fun to explore?
JF: I love all the social history of the period such as exploring the post-war rationing and how people put their lives back together after the massive upheaval of the war. And it wasn’t just buildings that were destroyed by five years of bombing it was moral certainties and old allegiances, too. The way in which divorce rocketed in the late forties and the landslide Labour victory in the Khaki Election of 1945 showed people weren’t willing to return to the pre-war order of things.
RL: Our enthusiastic reviewer said the book cries out for a sequel. Will there be more of Nurse Millie?
JF: I’m pleased to say there will and I’ve just sent the final draft of All Change for Nurse Millie in to my publishers. It’s out next February and we meet up with Millie on the 5th July 1948, the day the NHS came into being. We follow her and her fellow nurses around East London as they grapple with the new health system and their changing lives.
Find more about Jean’s novels at http://www.jeanfullerton.com/
Posted by Richard Lee