Book Review: My Notorious Life

NotoriousToday on the Fiction Reboot | Daily Dose, we present a review of My Notorious Life!  This work is based upon the true story of Anne Lohman, also known as Madame Restell, a prominent New York midwife enveloped in scandal, who died by suicide in 1879. The Dittrick Museum will host Kate Manning for a short talk and book signing on Sept 19th; RSVP to jks4@case.edu.

“Women’s Private Matters”: Thoughts on My Notorious Life by Kate Manning
Reviewed by–Anna Clutterbuck-Cook

Halfway through Kate Manning’s historical bildungs roman, My Notorious Life (Scribner, 2014) the young protagonist confronts her husband. Axie Ann (Muldoon) Jones has just performed her first abortion for Greta, childhood friend. Axie’s husband Charlie returns home and, upon learning of the abortion, turns angrily to his wife: “You want to tempt the devil on is, is that right? And the traps?” he accuses, “Is that what you’re doing there, then, [in your office] on Chatham Street?”

 –None of your business, I said. –It’s women’s private matters.

He stared at me like I was a stranger. Like he imagined in grim pictures what I done with Mrs. Evans [her teacher]. What I done for my friend. I feared what he thought of me, and how I would disgust him, and that he would leave me. –What else would you have me do? I cried. –Leave Greta on the road? (231).

 This exchange brings into stark relief the key tension around which My Notorious Life turns. Axie’s angry outburst — it’s women’s private matters! — is both a vicious indictment and and a powerful act of protection. By keeping her work in the shadows, particularly away from the scandalized and ill-informed eyes of men, Axie is able to care for her patients. Yet that same distance, the willful unknowingness of men regarding the experiences of women, isolates Axie personally and professionally — ultimately endangering not only her livelihood but her very life.

Loosely based on the real-life case of Madame Restell, a self-trained female physician who ran afoul of moral crusader Anthony Comstock and New York’s sensationalist press in the late nineteenth-century, Notorious is the fictional autobiography. Irish-American orphan Axie narrates her own life with a compelling voice that is by turns prickly, desperate, angry, generous — a complicated child grown into a complicated woman. We meet Axie as a child, separated from her ailing immigrant mother and sent West on an orphan train with her younger brother and sister — siblings who weave in and out of the narrative as actual and imagined characters, haunting Axie’s life long after they are separated and placed with different families. Resistant to relocation, Axie is returned to New York and ends up an unpaid housemaid-apprentice to a midwife, Mrs. Evans, who also “fixes” women who come to hear with unwanted pregnancies.

Our contemporary reproductive health landscape has its roots in the nineteenth-century world vividly fictionalized in the pages of My Notorious Life. As historians have ably documented — see, for example, Leslie Reagan’s seminal history When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1997) — midwifery and abortion occupied an uncertain space in the constellation of nineteenth-century health care. The reproductive lives of women had long been attended to by other women. However, as the modern medical profession evolved, the relationship between midwives and female physicians (denied access to medical schools) and the male medical establishment became contentious. Abortion — technically outlawed after “quickening” but largely ignored until the mid-1800s — became a cause du jour for reformers, ostensibly concerned for women’s safety, and medical men interested in the potentially lucrative business of women’s health services. These nineteenth-century battles lay the groundwork for a politicization of reproductive health care that remains in place to this day — as anti-abortion protests and lawsuits over birth control make clear.

It’s women’s private matters. The story of Axie’s life is overwhelmingly a story of women.* Men appear as charity workers, religious and political leaders, physicians, and occasionally lovers. Yet even Charlie, Axie’s husband, never completely emerges from the shadows despite his continual presence on the page. His motivations and emotional landscape remain shrouded. His courtship of Axie is perfunctory, their early marriage rocky, his understanding of her profession limited to its ability to stabilize family finances.

Instead, it is relationships between women that form the emotional core of My Notorious Life: Axie’s narrative is woven together by the threads of her connection to her mother, her sister, the midwife-physician to whom she is apprenticed, her friend Greta, her daughter, the women who seek out her services. Axie’s is a fully realized female world of love and ritual, moral complexity, anger, violence and loss. Against this rich tapestry of female relationships, characters like Charlie appear as distant players. In the end, My Notorious Life is a sweeping, melodramatic narrative worthy of its nineteenth-century protagonist — one which takes women’s private matters and makes them of more public concern.

*I’ve used binary terms throughout because those reflect the language used in the novel, the apparent identities of the characters, and the social framework of their world.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Anna Clutterbuck-Cook is a historian, librarian, and writer who serves as reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society and is currently researching mid twentieth-century Christian understandings of human sexual diversity. She lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts with her wife, two cats, and over one thousand books. You can find her online at thefeministlibrarian.com.

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