Sisters of the East End by Helen Batten

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Sisters of the East End by Helen Batten

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Jones
Reviewed by Louise Jones
Summary: The story of Sister Catherine Mary and her nursing ministry in some of London's poorest areas.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: September 2013
Publisher: Ebury Press
ISBN: 9780091951771

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Katie Crisp had never intended to become a nun. Raised by non-religious parents, her family frowned upon organised religion and when Katie started secretly going to church, they strongly disapproved. When Katie ran to the aid of a stroke victim, she had a vision that changed her life. She saw herself dressed as a nun with a large silver cross hanging from her neck. She decided to follow her calling and join the community of St John the Divine, a group of Anglican nuns dedicated to nursing and midwifery. She thus shed her old identity and became known as Sister Catherine Mary.

Catherine Mary is actually a fictional character, created from the collective experiences of the nuns of the community of St John the Divine. These nuns dedicated their lives to helping the sick in the poorest parts of the East End. Much of their work involved delivering babies and the experiences of the nuns were the inspiration for the popular TV series Call the Midwife.

I found the story of Catherine Mary interesting and enlightening. She was a likeable character with a progressive and forward-thinking mindset that helped revolutionise her closed religious community. She had an exciting and challenging life caring for some of the poorest members of society and even went on to use her skills in the developing world, taking charge of a birthing unit in Malawi for several years.

However, there were times when I felt a little short-changed by the book. The picture on the front cover of a newborn baby and the bold reference to Call the Midwife just above it, led me to believe that the majority of the book would be about midwifery. The blurb on the back likewise promises: Heart warming tales of nursing and midwifery. Although the book does contain a few accounts of childbirth, these are few and far between. The section about Malawi is a little better, but is only a single chapter in a 312 page book. The majority of the book is about Catherine and her journey to become a nun. Her doubts about taking her final vows take up several chapters of the book and can be quite tedious to read. The ennui of reading page upon page of her dithering had me longing for some more stories about her actual nursing experiences.

In conclusion, this is the perfect book for anyone curious about life behind closed doors in a religious community, but not necessarily a book for those wishing to read about midwives and nursing. I felt that the author did not quite strike the right balance, with the final narrative having too much emphasis on Catherine’s inner struggles with life in the Mother House and not enough focus on her life as a nurse as suggested on the front cover.

Shadows Of The Workhouse: The Drama Of Life In Postwar London by Jennifer Worth covers some of the same themes as this book.

Buy Sisters of the East End by Helen Batten at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sisters of the East End by Helen Batten at

Buy Sisters of the East End by Helen Batten at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sisters of the East End by Helen Batten at


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