My Notorious Life by Kate Manning
Publication Date: September 10, 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
A brilliant rendering of a scandalous historical figure, Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life is an ambitious, thrilling novel introducing Axie Muldoon, a fiery heroine for the ages.
Axie’s story begins on the streets of 1860s New York. The impoverished child of Irish immigrants, she grows up to become one of the wealthiest and most controversial women of her day.
In vivid prose, Axie recounts how she is forcibly separated from her mother and siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, and how she and her husband parlay the sale of a few bottles of “Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint” into a thriving midwifery business. Flouting convention and defying the law in the name of women’s reproductive rights, Axie rises from grim tenement rooms to the splendor of a mansion on Fifth Avenue, amassing wealth while learning over and over never to trust a man who says “trust me.”
When her services attract outraged headlines, Axie finds herself on a collision course with a crusading official—Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. It will take all of Axie’s cunning and power to outwit him in the fight to preserve her freedom and everything she holds dear.
Inspired by the true history of an infamous female physician who was once called “the Wickedest Woman in New York,” My Notorious Life is a mystery, a family saga, a love story, and an exquisitely detailed portrait of nineteenth-century America. Axie Muldoon’s inimitable voice brings the past alive, and her story haunts and enlightens the present.
Manning has written an emotionally gripping tale about Axie Muldoon, a midwife whose character is loosely based on Ann Trow Lohan, who was labeled “the wickedest woman in New York” in the mid-1800s because her medical practices were considered improper and shocking during this time period.
In a nutshell, this is a “rags to riches story” about a young woman, the child of poor Irish immigrants growing up in New York in the eighteenth century. The book spans the life of Axie Muldoon, describing her personal and professional struggles as she notoriously rises to fame, secretly helping women to gain some measure of control over their reproductive rights. When her practices become the focus of a media-frenzied attack, Axie finds herself in trouble with the law and her freedom jeopardized.
What I most enjoyed about this book is the way Manning smoothly incorporates real characters and events into this fictional tale. The first half of the book depicts Axie and her siblings’ struggles to survive the harsh conditions of their poverty-stricken environment on the streets of New York City. When they find themselves orphaned, Axie does her best to keep her family together after they are picked up by the Children’s Aid Society and sent out west for adoption. Their travel on the “Orphan Train” is based on a real project that Charles Loring Brace started to help find homes for high number of kids living in orphanages and on the streets of East Coast cities. Through Axie’s heart-breaking story, the author shows that while some children did, indeed, find homes with loving parents, others were used as servants with little regard for their well-being. Unfortunately, Axie and her younger sister and baby brother become separated, and Axie finds herself back in New York alone. Her relentless search to be reunited with her family is a significant story thread interwoven into the overall plot.
In order to survive, Axie becomes an unpaid apprentice to a midwife, and although she is initially exploited, she does gain hands-on experience in midwifery practices which will eventually lead to her financial success. Once married, Axie and her husband Charlie start their own business selling medicine called “Lunar Tablets” for the relief of “female complaint.” Charlie urges Axie to take a French name as “Madame X” to lend credibility to her practice. It is interesting that some people believed any product with a French title would be effective in preventing contraception and “removing obstructions.” In Axie’s narration of events, her character uses euphemisms, bleeps out profanities, since these words are too scandalous to mention, and this lends an authenticity to the cultural climate of Victorian society, the time period in which the story is set.
The second half of the novel describes Axie’s burgeoning career helping women from all social classes who come to her seeking assistance with childbirth, methods of birth control, and secret abortions. Many scenes in the book describe poor women who come to Axie for help because they already have enough children they can barely feed as well as women in situations where birth control is needed, such as prostitutes and rape victims. Axie truly believes her tonics and tablets are one of the ways she can help women who want a method of birth control. Although reluctant to perform abortions, Axie is gradually swayed by the women’s desperation and unfortunate situations. During this time, the standing belief was that a fetus wasn’t technically alive until “quickening,” the moment when the mother first felt movement in the womb. An abortion before quickening was considered acceptable but illegal afterwards. Manning depicts how dangerous pregnancy can be during this time and the dire measures women will take when they are determined to abort their unwanted pregnancies, such as inserting knitting needles and coat hangers into their vaginal areas or douching with dangerous chemicals such as bleach. As readers will see, Axie often struggles with difficult decisions that don’t always align with her personal convictions.
Although abortion was prohibited, Axie doesn’t feel the need to worry since authorities would not investigate unless someone made a legal complaint, and obviously the women who come to her under the veil of secrecy aren’t going to publicize their visits. Axie is passionate about helping women even though it puts her family and freedom at risk. The major conflict occurs when her practices come to the attention of Anthony Comstock, an actual person of historical significance who founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Comstock believed that any information about birth control was “obscene” and worked tirelessly to create the infamous Comstock Act in 1873 which forbade the distribution of publication materials and public education about birth control methods. As a result, Axie becomes entangled in the moral and political controversy over women’s reproductive rights.
The story is narrated in first person from Axie’s POV and is written in the form of a fictional memoir that one of her descendants finds and reads. The beginning of the novel grabbed my attention immediately because it opens with a suicide, a body is found in a bathtub in Axie’s home and then flashes back to the events leading up to this climactic situation. Axie’s narrative reflects the dialect and poor grammar of someone of her upbringing at the time, and while it took me a bit of time to adjust to the writing style, it adds another level of realism to the time period.
My Notorious Life is a thought-provoking read and a very good selection for book clubs. Manning even provides a Discussion Guide for Reading Groups for download.
Source: Borrowed from library
Kate Manning is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Whitegirl. A former documentary television producer (for WNET-13, where she won two Emmy Awards), Kate Manning would rather read than watch TV. She has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and More magazine. She has taught writing at Bard High School Early College. She lives with her family in New York City. You can read Chapter One of MY NOTORIOUS LIFE here: http://www.omnivoracious.com/2013/07/… (from author bio on book & GR profile)
Manning provides the following supplemental links on her website to help readers learn more about real events and people who play a significant role in the plot of this book:
The Orphan Train Movement from 1854-1929: http://orphantraindepot.org/
Madame Restell: The Abortionist of Fifth Avenue – From Smithsonian.com
The Wonderful Trial of Caroline Lohman -From Harvard University Library
Read Anthony Comstock, His Life of Cruelty and Crime by DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (New York, Liberal and Scientific Publishing House, 1878) which is archived at University of Toronto Libraries: https://archive.org/details/anthonycomstockh00bennuoft