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Reviewed by Viga Boland for Readers' Favorite
It's a bold task to take on writing a 400-page plus book based on the life of an obscure English midwife who lived in the 1600s. But that is the challenge Annelisa Christensen gave herself with The Popish Midwife, after studying court transcripts about the trial and conviction of the courageous Elizabeth Cellier, who dared to write a book disclosing the brutality and inhumane treatment of those imprisoned for even minor offences in Newgate Prison.
The Popish Midwife takes place at the end of the puritanical, strict era of Oliver Cromwell, when King Charles II was returned to the throne. While people celebrated the new freedom, the country was far from safe or healthy, especially for Catholics. As a Catholic, Elizabeth was ever exposed to danger as she went about her work of helping mothers give birth. She also spent much of her time taking food to prison inmates and, as she did so, she saw and heard first hand so much of man's inhumanity to man. She felt compelled to bring these brutal practices to the attention of those she believed would care as much as she did. The reward for the efforts of this aging, unwell but brave woman was incarceration in the very place she fought to expose: Newgate.
Historical fiction buffs will love The Popish Midwife, but it is written in first person, as if it were a memoir. That, for me, makes what Annelisa Christensen has achieved in this book even more impressive: it has all the requirements of great historical fiction, including an adherence to the language of the 1600s, but it is touching and real the way a well-written memoir should be. The author spent years researching her story and her attention to detail and fact, the historical period, customs, and dialects give The Popish Midwife authenticity. But it is Annelisa Christensen's considerable writing talent that makes this an absorbing, worthwhile read even for those who, like me, aren't fans of historical fiction, but love a well-written story that keeps one turning the pages and wondering what will happen next. Highly recommended.