Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Reading Nook: My Notorious Life by Madame X

I'm a sucker for a good title, and even worse for packaging.  It's one of the reason's I'm very careful to avoid Paperchase if I can help it - you would never get me out.

It was the title and the cover that first drew me to this book - it's not one that I would normally go for (although I do like fictional autobiographies; Memoirs of a Geisha, Empress Orchid, The Help etc) as the first person narrative really immerses you in the story.
The cover endorsements also helped me decide to pick it up, although I am wary of anything on a dust jacket these days after chatting with a lady who's job in publishing used to be how to take mediocre and lack lustre comments from reviewers and present them in such a way as to make the book sound like the greatest work of art ever created.  Don't trust a dust jacket - it lies!

In this case though it happened to be telling the truth.

My Notorious Life is a work of fiction, very loosely based on the life of Ann Trow, otherwise known as Madame Restell, an abortionist working in New York in the mid-late 1880's.  Manning's heroine is a rapscallion urchin, foul mouthed and impoverished, scampering around the streets of New York in the mud and waste, caring for her younger brother and sister whilst her mother lies ill in bed after an accident in the factory where she works.  Her name is Ann (Axie) Muldoon, a fire cracker with a deep sense of Irish identity and familial loyalty.

Axie and her brother (Joe) and sister (Dutch)  have a chance encounter with a children's aid worker who sends them on a train to the countryside with other orphans (despite Axie's protestations).  On the journey they meet Charlie, a boorish yet charming orphan boy who has a tempestuous relationship with Axie.  To Axie's horror, once they reach the countryside she is forcibly sepearated from her siblings and when no suitable adoptive parents can be found for her, sent back to New York with Charlie.

Once there events rapidly escalate for Axie until she finds herself apprenticed to a female midwife and learning all the tricks of the trade for female health, fertility, and the occassional removal of an 'obstruction'.  Years pass, she meets Charlie again, they court and marry.  She writes on a regular basis to her sister, hearing stories back about Dutch's good fortune, the balls she is attending, the French she is learning and the dresses she is wearing.  There is no word of her brother.

After the death of her mentor and teacher, Axie and her husband live in poverty with no source of income.  In desperation, Axie makes up 6 bottles of women's remedy (not to be taken when pregnant as it may cause the woman to loose the child) and sells them on the streets.  She makes a small profit and gradually she and Charlie build up an huge enterprise.  Axie, under the alias Madame DeBeausacq becomes a midwife, seller of female remedies, educator for women on the secrets of their bodies and occasional abortionist at a time when often another child meant a death sentence for the mother and hunger for the family.  However, a midwife as successful as Axie, who resides in grandeur and wealth, could not remain completely unnoticed by the authorities.  Dubbed Madame X by the newspaper, the vilest and most corrupt woman in New York, all too soon she finds herself hounded by the man who has vowed to destroy her, Anthony Comstock, the founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Written in beautiful, dramatic prose, this book just draws you into Axie's world.  The book is unabashedly feminist about a time when women's rights were non-existant, when distributing knowledge and education about the 'female complaint' was dubbed as heresy, when publishing pamphlets about female medication was enough to get you thrown in jail for 6 months, and when practicing abortion was seen as the worse sin.  Axie is a woman who does not fit into this world - she is defiant, outspoken and swears like a gutter snipe.  She enjoys a fiery, intense love with her husband and will not suffer fools gladly but is kind, considerate and caring with the frightened women who come to her for help.  She knows that what she is doing is the right thing for people with nowhere else to turn, and despite the dangers and risks to her and her family, continues.  She also never gives up on her siblings and is hellbent on reuniting a family torn apart by a meddling but well-meaning aid worker.

The language style is engrossing and once I was 50 pages in, I could not put this book down.  Manning immerses you completely in this period in history, the sights, sounds and smells of the streets, the midwifery clinic, the back parlour where Axie and Charlie sell their Women's Lunar Remedy in the early days of their marriage surround you.  It is all the more engrossing as many of the characters are based on real people, and the situations and circumstances they find themselves which makes it all the more fascinating.  I finished it in a few days, muttering 'Just one more chapter' late at night as poor Steve was trying to sleep, unwilling to put the book down as I travelled with Axie on her journey from 13 year old untamed wild creature to 33 year old infamous female medical practitioner.

Highly recommended.

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