Thank you, Sister Monica Joan

The older I have become, the more I have become a sensitive, sentimental, soppy emotional basket-case. I can get teary-eyed with little or no provocation these days. A case in point occurred recently as I was watching the PBS series entitled, Call the Midwife. The series is a warm-hearted BBC drama based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth (called Jenny Lee in the show) and the work of midwives and the nuns of Nonnatus House, a nursing convent, part of an Anglican religious order, coping with the medical problems in the deprived Poplar district of London’s desperately poor East End in the 1950s, the same period that this blog celebrates with its music.

I must admit the show has a habit of opening my tear ducts. It is also capable of springing real surprises – and it did so in abundance in a recent episode because it not only opened my tear ducts, but also gave me a pleasant surprise. It was a serendipitous moment to say the least.

Never mind the plot – the unexpected surprise for me came when Jenny Lee (played beautifully by Jessica Raine), a pretty, prim, proper, and prissy midwife with perfectly permed dark hair was leaving Nonnatus House in a black cab and Sister Monica Joan came forward to bid her farewell.

Now in her nineties, Sister Monica Joan (played with perfection by Judy Parfitt) is a retired nun who lives full-time at Nonnatus House, cared for by her fellow sisters. She has an eccentric, mercurial personality, and is obsessed with cake, astrology and knitting, in no particular order. It is never entirely clear how much of Sister Monica Joan’s eccentricity is due to the frailty of age, or (as Jenny suspects) sheer wilful naughtiness. She is a well-read woman with a singularly well-furnished mind, but, now in its failing state, her mind is more of a disordered warehouse than of a well-ordered store. The result is that one never knows what will begin in her mind and end up coming out of her mouth. In bidding Jenny a tearful farewell, she reached back into that chaotic storeroom of hers and came out with this:
Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!

Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.

I must confess that Sister Monica Joan nearly broke my heart with that quote. She may be somewhat batty, but generally she is brilliantly astute and relevant and strangely enough, she comforts the person involved.

Nurse Jenny Lee is flanked by Sister Julienne on her right and Sister Monica Joan on her left in a scene from Call the Midwife

Nurse Jenny Lee is flanked by Sister Julienne on her right and Sister Monica Joan on her left in a scene from Call the Midwife

What a delightful surprise that those words should turn up in such an unlikely context. Those are the words of James Henry Leigh Hunt (best known as Leigh Hunt), an English critic, essayist, poet and writer. “Jenny Kissed Me” is one of Hunt’s most popular poems and celebrates a happy encounter with Jane Welsh Carlyle, whose nickname was “Jenny.” One of the stories behind the poem is that during one winter Hunt was sick with influenza and absent for so long that when he finally recovered and went to visit the Carlyles, Jane (Jenny) jumped up and kissed him as soon as he appeared at the door. Two days later one of the Hunt servants delivered a note addressed, “From Mr. Hunt to Mrs. Carlyle.” It contained the poem, “Jenny Kissed Me.” The poem was first published in November 1838 in the Monthly Chronicle.

The poem, “Jenny Kissed Me” has been described variously as whimsical, charming, simple, and unaffected. Many readers encounter it for the first time during their school-age years and remember it all their lives. I know that is what happened to me and I have loved that poem ever since. Numerous girls have been named “Jenny” as a result of the fond memory of the poem. The insightful ending to “Jenny Kissed Me” invariably brings a smile to the reader’s face.

In 1947, a version of the poem was sung by The Delta Rhythm Boys with music by Charles Green and Jordan Smith. In the 1950s, the poem was set again to music by Sid Tapper and Roy Brodsky. Both Eddie Albert and Guy Mitchell made recordings of this version of the song. None of these versions ever made it on the Billboard charts, but they were typical of the period.

Still another version was written by Eric Barnum especially for a cappella choirs. I have included each of these versions.



The Delta Rhythm Boys
Eddie Albert
Guy Mitchell
Baylor A Cappella Choir


1 Comment

Filed under Pop Music

One response to “Thank you, Sister Monica Joan

  1. Heather B.

    I just watched that episode the other night (I am late to the party, as I just discovered Call the Midwife this summer via Netflix) – and I had the very same reaction as you, though I had never heard the poem before. I became increasingly emotional as Sister Monica Joan recited the poem so passionately, and I had to Google it to find out who wrote the poem and read it for myself. I am glad to know I wasn’t the only one overcome by her performance in this episode! Thank you for the post!

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