Title: My Notorious Life by Madame X
Author: Kate Manning
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Australia
Read: June 1-5, 2013
Based on a true story from the scandalized headlines of Victorian New York City, My Notorious Life is a portrait of Axie Muldoon, the impoverished daughter of Irish Immigrants who becomes an enormously successful—and controversial—midwife. Separated from her siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, Axie parlays the sale of a few bottles of “lunar tonic for relief of female complaint” into a thriving practice as a female physician known as “Madame X.” But as she rises from the gutter to the glitter of Fifth Avenue, Axie discovers that the right way is not always the way of the law, and that you should never trust a man who says, “trust me.” But what if that man is an irresistible risk-taker with a poetical soul? Soon, Axie’s choices put her on a collision course with one of the most zealous characters of her era: Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and it will take all of her power and wealth to outwit him and save herself and her family from ruin.
A love story, a family saga, and a vivid rendering of a historical time and heated political climate, My Notorious Life is the tale of one woman making her indomitable way in a difficult world. Axie Muldoon is a heroine for the ages.
Every once in a while a book comes along which envelops you in a time capsule and carries you off in space and time for a memorable trip back in history. Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life was such a story. After experiencing 19th century New York through the eyes of Manning’s plucky and outspoken heroine Axie (Ann) Muldoon I have not only learned a great deal about a chapter in America’s history I knew little about, but also appreciate the changes in society which have given women of our time so much more control over our own fates.
Born as the eldest daughter of poor Irish immigrants in New York, Axie Muldoon has had to learn to survive at an early age. With her father dead and her mother seriously injured in a work accident, Axie and her two younger siblings are found wandering the streets in search of food and fall into the hands of Reverend Charles Brace of the Children’s Aid Society. Whilst he initially promises salvation from starvation, Axie will later come to see the encounter as a black mark in her personal history when both her sister Dutch and her brother Joe are given up for adoption to farming families in Illinois. Rebelling against a similar fate, Axie finds herself back in New York, living a life of poverty in the household of her mother’s new husband’s family. After the death of her mother due to childbed fever she is taken in as servant to a local doctor and his wife Mrs Evans, who acts as a local midwife and seller of female remedies.
Over the years of service in the Evans’ household, Axie learns some valuable skills from Mrs Evans, which will later set her career as midwife and herbalist – as well as making her one of the most notorious women in New York, the mysterious midwife and accused abortionist Madame X. Facing the fierce opposition of some influential persons of the time and accused of some unspeakable crimes, our plucky heroine must not only fight for the women who rely on her expertise but also for her own freedom.
Based loosely on the true historical New York personality Ann Trow, better known as Madame Restell, Manning explores the common fates of women in the 19th century, when pregnancy and childbirth were often a mixed blessing. With mortality high due to complications in childbirth or postpartum infections, women would flock to anyone who could promise a positive outcome of their pregnancy or a cure for various female ailments. This often included terminating unwanted pregnancies, which was not considered a crime at the time if performed before the baby had “quickened”. Interspersed with fascinating facts about medical and midwifery practices at the time as well as some real-life historical figures (such as the pompous Anthony Comstock), My Notorious Life is one of those novels which provides both reading pleasure as well as education.
Although it took me a little while to get used to Axie’s unique voice, I found myself quickly drawn in and could not get enough of her – outspoken and courageous, Axie is a wonderful protagonist one cannot but admire. With her own mother lost to childbed fever, Axie’s own fear of a similar fate is a great motivator for her to help other women – that this should also provide a source of income and livelihood is due to her clever husband Charlie, who like Axie is a wonderful character I quickly warmed to.
The vast differences in living conditions of New York’s different population groups become evident in Axie and Charlie’s own rags-to-riches story and highlight the plight of many poor immigrant women of the time. However, even money was no protection against unwanted pregnancies or the dangers of childbirth, which sees even the rich flock to Axie for her expertise. The provocative issue of abortion is explored in a way which highlights the choices and medical care we now take for granted and the dangers of childbirth in an era which historically speaking was not all that long ago. Even readers with strong opinions on the subject should find some of Axie’s motivations compelling and thought provoking. Supported by a strong emotional background and three-dimensional characters who appear to be stepping out of the pages of this remarkable novel, it is impossible to close off one’s mind to the plight of the various women featuring in the novel – despite any preconceived notions we may harbour. With desperation featuring strongly throughout all aspects of the novel it is impossible not to get under your skin – at times tragic and sad, other times as a triumph of womanhood against all odds. Some scenes were almost like a punch in the solar plexus, so deep was the pain the women had to endure – it may be quite close and personal for some readers.
I highly recommend My Notorious Life to all lovers of historical fiction. By introducing issues many readers may find controversial, this novel would open a multitude of different discussion points for a bookclub read, even if the debate may get quite heated due to the strong emotional background attached to the subject matter. Definitely an author to watch – her first novel Whitegirl also sounds like a very worthwhile read and is now firmly cemented on my tbr list.
A big thank you to the Reading Room and Bloomsbury Publishing Australia for providing me with a first edition copy of this wonderful novel in exchange for an honest review.