Review: My Notorious Life {by Madame X} by Kate Manning

Title: My Notorious Life by Madame X

Author: Kate Manning

Published: Bloomsbury June 2013

Watch me in conversation with Kate Manning and The Reading Room

Status: Read from June 11 to 12, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy the author}

My Thoughts:

A compelling and provocative tale, author Kate Manning blends history and imagination to create a wonderfully rich portrait of an extraordinary character. My Notorious Life is loosely based on the history of 19th-century New York midwife and abortionist Ann Trow Lohman, better known as Madame Restell.

The narrative of this tale is in the first person point of view and takes the form of a journal, chronicling the life of Axie (Ann) Muldoon. It begins with thirteen year old Axie begging with her younger siblings, sister Dutchie and brother Joe, on the streets of New York and follows her rising and falling fortunes after being separated from her family and eventually apprenticed to Mrs Evans, a Manhattan midwife who also treats ‘womens troubles’. Reunited with fellow street urchin turned print setter and aspiring journalist, Charlie G Jones, whom she marries, the death of Mrs Evans and the couple’s poverty inspires Axie to manufacture and sell medicinal aids for female complaints, a business that soon expands to include advising women on matters such as contraception, and offering both midwifery care and early term abortions for those desperate enough to seek them.

Axie is a character who will get under your skin. Feisty, loyal, compassionate and brave, she is an uncommon woman for the times. Manning develops her beautifully from an orphaned 13 year old street rat to a wealthy wife, mother and midwife. Her journey from ‘rags to riches’ is remarkable but the fine clothes and fancy decor doesn’t changes who she is, despite the veneer of wealth.

For Axie, whose own mother died from childbirth fever, abortion was a practice that she honoured despite its unpleasantness. I found Axie’s initial ambivalence interesting, while she understood the desperation of women worn out by childbirth, girls taken advantage of by their ‘guardians’, women seduced by the sweet nothings whispered by those they loved, it took her some time to recognise the value of the service she provided.

The social portrait of 18th century America is brilliantly drawn. The disparity in class, economic and educational opportunities, the lack of social welfare and the unfettered misogyny of religion, politics and government. Central to My Notorious Life however are the issues that women faced as marginalised members of society with few rights.

With the distinct lack of contraceptive options in the late 19th century women had little control over their fertility. For wives who were unable to refuse sex with their husbands, multiple pregnancies increased the already high risk of death in childbirth or other crippling complications.
Women were also particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and assault, and as men abdicated any responsibility with impunity, once impregnated they were ostracised by society.
As such, women relied on abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies and at the time it was a accepted practice, though not openly discussed. Home remedies such as gin and hot bath, concoctions with dubious medicinal qualities such as the type Axie sells after leaving the Evans were tried while others sought out a sympathetic midwife for a abortion. The procedure, as long as it was performed before the ‘quickening’ was not made illegal until Comstock began his moral crusade, backed by (male) doctors who were determined to wrest control of obstetric practices away from midwives.

While My Notorious Life explores the history of social and health issues it is foremost a remarkable and compelling story that I could not put down. I found it fascinating, thought provoking and thoroughly entertaining and I offer it to you with my highest recommendation.

Available to purchase

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US Cover

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Heidi
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 20:00:52

    It was great, wasn’t it? Love your review! 🙂



  2. Kate Belle
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 20:50:57

    Everything about this book intrigues me. Definitely must read it. Thanks Shelleyrae.



  3. Turn the Page Reviews
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 04:40:48

    Great review- I am hoping to read this soon-thanks.



  4. Mystica
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 09:28:00

    Do so like your review. Read it last week and found it very good.



  5. 1girl2manybooks
    Jun 20, 2013 @ 11:37:04

    Loved this book – great review. Am watching the hangout now.



  6. farmlanebooks
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 04:49:32

    It is wonderful to see that you loved this book as much as I did. I think it might become my favourite book of 2013!



  7. Teddyree
    Jun 24, 2013 @ 13:39:16

    Loved your review. Anything to do with midwifery is right up my alley, I’m hunting this one down now!



  8. Trackback: My Notorious Life | Turn the Page Reviews

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