Based on a true story from the scandalized headlines of Victorian New York City, My Notorious Life is a portrait of Axie Muldoon, the impoverished daughter of Irish Immigrants who becomes an enormously successful—and controversial—midwife. Separated from her siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, Axie parlays the sale of a few bottles of “lunar tonic for relief of female complaint” into a thriving practice as a female physician known as “Madame X.”
But as she rises from the gutter to the glitter of Fifth Avenue, Axie discovers that the right way is not always the way of the law, and that you should never trust a man who says, “trust me.” But what if that man is an irresistible risk-taker with a poetical soul? Soon, Axie’s choices put her on a collision course with one of the most zealous characters of her era: Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and it will take all of her power and wealth to outwit him and save herself and her family from ruin.
A love story, a family saga, and a vivid rendering of a historical time and heated political climate, My Notorious Life is the tale of one woman making her indomitable way in a difficult world. Axie Muldoon is a heroine for the ages.
After a chilling prologue, Ms Manning’s character of Annie [Axie] Muldoon jumps off the page as a twelve-year-old Irish child living in abject poverty in New York. Her father is dead and her mother has been injured in the laundry, but fate in the guise of the Children’s Aid Society takes over and Axie finds herself miles from anywhere, separated from her siblings and thrown into an alien world. In a mixture of Irishisms and colloquial language, Axie tells her own story in an unapologetic uncompromising way so the reader cannot possibly judge her choices.
Axie, her sister Dutch [Duchess] and her brother Joe are given up for adoption to farming families in Illinois. Axie was always going to be the rebel and returns to New York to live with her new stepfather’s family. When her mother dies of childbed fever, Axie becomes a servant to a local doctor and his wife, Mrs Evans, who acts as a local midwife known for her ability to "fix a girl up."
Years later, in Axie’s new incarnation as Madame DeBeausacq, she helps young girls have abortions which introduces a moral dilemma – is Axie helping young, desperate women or simply getting rich? The self-righteous Society for the Suppression of Vice and its odious founder, Anthony Comstock decides Axie is a thorn in their side and is determined to ruin her. However, they underestimate Axie’s skill for fighting back and her own survival.
A fact I wasn’t aware of was that in Victorian times, terminating unwanted pregnancies was not considered a crime if performed before the baby had "quickened". The author has also included some fascinating facts about midwifery practices, so I came away with new insight into how toxic and dangerous childbirth was and how badly women were treated by complacent, ignorant men.
This novel was quite long, over four hundred pages and very detailed, based on the true story of Ann Trow Lohman (1811-79), who was dubbed the ‘Wickedest Woman in New York’ for her role as an abortionist. The author used the diaries of one of her ancestors, a combination which makes it a fascinating account of what life was really like for women in mid-1800’s America – or in fact any ‘civilised’ society.