“In the end, they celebrated. They bragged. They got me, finally, was their feeling. They said I would take my secrets to the grave.
They should be so lucky.”
This is a review of the book My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning. It purports to be the journal of a midwife / female doctor in New York in the 1800s, who became notorious (as per the title) for her work on fertility and abortion.
I was given this book as an advance copy, to review before it is released by Bloomsbury in June 2013. (Got in just in time, right?) As such, my copy looks like the photo above, whereas the published version will have the title superimposed over the figure rather than the quote above. I apologise therefore for not having the published image to give you, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find on the bookshelves anyway, right?
And find it on the bookshelves you should. This is an absolutely fascinating historical novel, which chronicles the life of Axie Muldoon, aka Madame de Beausacq, and her experiences from being separated from her brother and sister via their adoption, to her education with the midwife who was unable to save her mother, to setting up a successful practice in “women’s medicine” with her husband Charlie. Anything which was seen to regulate conception was in those days illegal, and discussion of women’s reproductive systems was considered “obscene”, so Axie (or, as she was Christened, Ann) had to be very careful with the way she conducted her business.
The story is incredible. Short chapters and an engaging manner make it way too easy to keep reading way past bed time (“surely it’s not one o’clock in the morning already! I just went to bed!”) and, as Axie’s notoriety grows you become more and more convinced that things are too good to last. As, of course, they are. Madame de Beausacq become so reviled in the media that her clientele are too ashamed to admit they have used her services, and patients’ words are turned against them as the police struggle to find something they can convict her of. Yet, seen from the perspective of the twenty first century, what she is practicing is basic medical care, despite her lack of formal training. (It must be said, though, that some of the Republicans in America might be just as likely to go on a witch hunt for someone like her these days as the New York constabulary did back then. Maybe we haven’t evolved as much as I would like to think.)
Axie’s story is loosely based on the experiences of Ann Trow Lowman, a midwife who practiced in New York City for approximately 40 years. Significant events from Lowman’s life are used, though they are (by admission of the author) moved around to make the story more compelling. In addition, Manning makes excellent use of real historical figures, such as Charles Loring Brace and Anthony Comstock, the latter of whom makes life extremely difficult for our heroine. All told it is gritty and realistic, and shows what life really was like 150 or so years ago, for city dwellers in America at least.
The novel is well written, tightly-plotted and very hard to put down. My only issue with it is the use of Axie’s grammatical foibles – while they add to the narrative, there are times when they feel forced and unnatural. Maybe it’s because they diminish somewhat as she matures so they are less common, but a couple of times they grated on me. Other than that, I can find nothing to criticise. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.