Friday, May 31, 2013

'My Notorious Life'

Controversy has been with us since the beginning of time.  And the new book I've just finished reading is certainly that.

It's very hard to write about the subject of abortion.  Some women have gone through the experience, some totally disagree with that path.  'It's immoral!'  'It's murder!'  And then you have the other side; 'I can't afford children!'  'I don't believe that life begins at conception'.  The reasons coming from both sides are long and passionate.  

Two sides.  Two controversies.  But while reading 'My Notorious Life', the new book written by Kate Manning, I wasn't thinking of the controversy.  I was, instead, thinking about how unfair life was for women, rich and poor, living during the 1800's.

Any attempts at educating women about birth control were thought of as 'smut' and 'immoral'; even distributing pamphlets was done in secret.  Women were supposed to just lay back and let the man have his way.  It was no huge matter that being pregnant with a ninth or tenth child could endanger the woman's (and the child's) health; men didn't care.  Perhaps for those men, women were 'a dime a dozen'.  And the mistresses...I didn't even want to think about that.

But there were women and men in the medical profession who had compassion for women in those dire straits.  The women were midwives, assisting pregnant women during labor.  But there were some who performed other services.  

So that brings me back to 'My Notorious Life', a novel based on fact; it is based partly on the life of Ann Trow Lohman, also know as Madame Restell, a midwife living in Victorian New York.  This is a novel set in a time in which I, as a woman, would not want to live.

Axie Muldoon, the daughter of impoverished Irish immigrants, becomes a hugely successful midwife, who is soon known as 'Madame X'.  Axie recounts her life as a struggling child, who, with her young sister and brother, is forced to beg for food.  But she and her siblings are soon separated from each each other, and Axie finds herself an apprentice to a midwife.  Parlaying the sale of a few bottles of 'Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint', her star rises in her profession, and she and her husband find themselves living among the rich and powerful in New York.  But Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, becomes her enemy, and it takes everything in Axie's arsenal to outwit him and save her and her family from ruin.

The early stages of the novel brought a tear to my eye, but I was impressed with Axie's determination and moral imperative.  The accounts of the poor women who could no longer handle being pregnant for the ninth or tenth time (and burying a few of those babies) tore my heart apart.  It made me grateful to be living in a time when women have free access to birth control and reproductive education, when it's not a 'sin' to possess such knowledge.  

The author's portrayal of Axie's world is so spot-on; I could actually visualize her extreme poverty, the panic she felt when she was taken away from her family, her rise to the mansion in the city.  And her childhood friend, who later became her husband.  Axie is a fierce, passionate character, and beautifully realized.

'My Notorious Life' will certainly stir controversy and passionate discussions, but there is one thing women must consider:  We are fortunate to be living in an era where we can freely talk about personal reproductive choices.  Ms. Manning has taken a courageous step in portraying such a compassionate character.  

But there were so many women who lived so long ago who had no choice (and voice) at all.

Consider yourself lucky.

'My Notorious Life', by Kate Manning, will be published in September 2013 by Scribner.

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