Book Review: The Ghost Midwife: Murder at Rotten Row and The Midnight Midwife

The Ghost Midwife: Murder at Rotten Row and The Midnight Midwife
Books II and III in the Seventeenth Century Midwives series
by Annelisa Christensen

Straight out of the gate: Having read and loved Annelisa Christensen’s earlier novel, The Popish Midwife, I reviewed it, and was rather excited when I received word about two newer books in the Seventeenth Century Midwives series: The Ghost Midwife and The Midnight Midwife. When at last viewing the slim volumes in my hands, I was a little disappointed, because I am a greedy reader, and when I love something, I want lots of it! Fear not, dear reader, as there is much to admire packed into the pages of these two smaller books. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the warm beauty of Christensen’s covers, with images framed by what could be a window, from which the reader gazes out upon scenes bathed in the yellowish light of the evening lanterns, all contrasted against the bright red, green and blue of a dress or cloak. The pictures are signature Midwives, and the moods they create absolutely match those of the stories within.

While writing and researching The Popish Midwife, the author happened upon “A New Ballad of the Midwives Ghost” and writes in her afterward: “Many ballads of the time were the equivalent of news stories made more enjoyable and memorable by putting them to music. The songs might have been sung in taverns or coffee houses, or learned and sung in the home or elsewhere.” This may strike modern audiences as a macabre practice, but then again, maybe not: Our own children still play “Ring Around the Rosy” and jump rope to a song about Lizzie Borden, while teens and adults alike engage in memery with topics lifted directly from the headlines. Christensen was no less moved, and her intellectual pursuit of the ballad’s origins resulted in The Midwife Ghost, a mix of history and imagination stemming from her knowledge of and admiration for the real midwives of the seventeenth century.

In 1679 London, young Mary enters service in a well-to-do house on Rotten Row, where she soon encounters the ghost of a midwife with some very specific instructions. Following a series of ghastly and frightening events that send alarm throughout the servant staff, all eyes fall on Mary, who discovers a dark and terrible secret that had been hiding in the home for fifteen years. It is up to her to work through the problem of her knowledge and what to do, while simultaneously the others begin to view her with suspicion.

One thing I love best about Christensen’s writing is its aura, the words she chooses that fit her stories, characters and the time so well. Moreover, the individual nuance makes itself known: Mary’s pleas to hear her story out before any judgment is passed, while wise with the understanding that hers is indeed a fantastic tale, could not be the words of Catholic Elizabeth Cellier, or even midwife Abigale, who in The Midnight Midwife also finds herself trapped within circumstance. Each woman has her own distinct voice, while simultaneously revealing themselves as persons of their time. Thus is the author’s skillful balance between depicting members of a society and people operating within the infancy of individualism.

As a ghost story, Mary’s yarn is probably best at the length it is, despite my own ravenous appetite for more. With this, Christensen’s judgement on length is validated, and the divisions between segments of the tale sit in perfect points. Through events as well as the way the characters speak, readers also get a solid idea of how seventeenth-century folk perceived their world, what frightened them, what was important. But these are not merely a gaggle of grownups on a more childlike level, or simple people in “a simpler time.” We may fancy ourselves more shrewd today, but Mary knows the world she inhabits: she knows, for example, to press the stubs of candles together to earn a few pennies, and doesn’t cringe when pulling an unseen cobweb from a dark recess.

I fortified myself with another deep breath. I could not leave it this way. A man never did find a misplaced thing, even if it was waved before his face. If I had imagined it all, it did seem as if it were real, and I would not believe it was nothing until I had searched in that hole myself.

Christensen brings us face to face with the awareness that our ability to be unafraid was preceded by those who first faced those ghosts. So too does she show us that our ancestors tackled the mysteries and vagaries of humanity, on levels corporeal and spiritual. Such is the challenge of the above-mentioned midwife, Abigale, who adopts a baby, also called Mary, an act that ushers in with it the holding of a secret that later threatens to destroy their lives utterly.

By the time this threat makes itself known, Mary is a 21-year-old sister to two other adopted girls and talented helper to her mother in the various birthing rooms Abigale serves in. However, Mary’s grown-up self is not the same as the baby she once was, and Abigale comes to understand that she has a choice to make, one that may serve to destroy her family or keep it whole.

Once more Christensen brings us into the mindset of seventeenth-century people faced with a fearful circumstance, again maintaining a balance, here between the depiction of their social and individual selves. The circumstances are both familiar and not to our modern world, as are the demands, sympathies and cruelties of human nature. Perhaps less familiar today, at least to some, is the comfort and guidance found in spiritual works, such as Saint Augustine’s City of God, from which comes the understanding that an omniscient God sees the whole that explains the diversity and similarity of parts, which individually contribute to providing an overall balance.

As a philosophy, it is often neglected in our modern world, particularly on a secular level and within varying contexts, and Christensen’s story takes her characters, and us, through a labyrinth of experience wherein they, often like us, seek the balance to which they belong and, therefore, the beauty of the whole. If this sounds a bit like dense reading , here is where you exhale, because the author does not need to engage deep and difficult texts in order to convey all this. Her character interaction is smooth and realistic, authentic in the differences they face as well as create, and the dialogue is superb in so many ways: there is a true seventeenth-century feel to it, even while we recognize much of what people say and how they behave.

Also based on a seventeenth-century ballad, The Midnight Midwife brings us into the joys and sorrows of one family headed by a single-parent midwife – the neglect of which, as a subject of study, Christensen here contributes to eliminating. In examining the fierce love of a mother and how far she will go – or stand back – to protect her child, she explores varied facets of seventeenth-century society and private life, the history of which are the beginnings of our own understanding.

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Author Annalisa Christensen provided the blogger with copies of The Ghost Midwife and The Midnight Midwife in order to facilitate an honest review.

Annelisa Christensen is also the author of A-Z Monsters (Not) for Bed.

She can be found at Twitter and Facebook.

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