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London’s East End in the 1950s was a harsh place to live. The long-term effects of poverty, unemployment, overcrowding, and substandard public housing factored into the misery, not to mention the intense bombing the area experienced during World War II. Into this world stepped Jennifer Lee, a young nurse trained as a midwife. She later wrote about her experiences under her married name, Jennifer Worth, in a trio of memoirs.

“Call the Midwife” is a BBC-produced television series based on her memories. In the first season, we get to know Jenny’s coworkers—the young midwives who stay at the Nonnatus House convent as well as the nuns who work as nurses. The young women are learning about themselves and their new world as they live in the convent and continue to lead typical social lives. The nuns are generally portrayed as compassionate, hard-working women who handle their neighbors’ needs with grace.

The series immerses viewers in the lives of well-written characters in great period sets, costumes, and situations. It’s not for the squeamish, however; the show does not shy away from the actual work of midwifery or from the sad results of lives lived in poverty. The society portrayed in “Call the Midwife” is the antithesis of the rarified air breathed by the characters of “Downton Abbey.”

Jenny and her friends return to PBS on March 31 for the second season, which has just finished airing in the United Kingdom. The first season (6 episodes) is available on DVD and streams on Netflix.

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