‘My Notorious Life’ sucks you into 19th century reproductive rights issues
Kate Manning’s novel My Notorious Life grabbed me from the start, and it did not let go. It was one of those rare books you hate to see end.
Manning tells the story of Axie Muldoon, a young orphan girl growing up in 19th-century New York City. The story tracks Axie from her early life as an utterly impoverished street urchin to her later evolution becoming a wealthy 5th Avenue midwife serving women of all social classes. It is a rags to riches story, but that is hardly all it is.
The novel is based on the true story of Ann Trow Lohman, later known as Madame Restell. Lohman developed an interest in women’s health and medicinal cures. She advertised and sold female products through the newspapers. Women came to her with all types of reproductive problems, but especially birth control and abortion. She practiced as a “female physician” for almost 40 years in New York City from approximately the early 1840s to her death in 1878. Lohman’s business was under constant attack from yellow journalists, criminal courts and prudish reactionaries. Called “the wickedest woman in New York,” she went to jail for a year on an abortion-related charge.
Axie’s story has some definite parallels. She, too, achieved notoriety after apprenticing as a midwife and starting her own business under the name Madame DeBeausacq. She also went to jail for her practice. Scurrilous newpapers referred to her as “notorious she-devil,” “hag of misery,” “Evil Doctress” and “Foul Murdress.” She faced repeated criminal prosecutions with biased judges, hostility from the male medical profession and threats from mob violence that were instigated by vicious, lying press.
In the story she also has her run-ins with Anthony Comstock, Crusader Against Vice. He was a Rick Santorum-type except far worse. Comstock was a holy roller hell-bent on confronting sin and smut. Through his political connections, he became a special agent of the U.S. Postal Service, a post he used to carry on his personal jihad. Unfortunately for Axie, she got into his crosshairs. For those unfamiliar with Comstock, he was a real 19th-century guy with expansive ideas about what constituted obscene, lewd and lascivious behavior. When not putting people he considered smut peddlers behind bars, he pursued midwives and abortionists. He proudly claimed he drove 15 people whom he opposed to suicide. He was a warrior against sin, or as Axie called him, “a rat terrier for Christ.”
As for what I liked about the novel: The heroine of the story, Axie aka Ann Jones, aka Madame DeBeausacq, is a feisty, big-hearted character who you have to root for. She is not left alone by all the needy women who beg her for help. Women were really between a rock and a hard place in the 19th century. Sexuality was so castigated and stigmatized. When Axie gets into trouble, it is because she could not stand to see women suffer when she was in a position to help. Axie, a reject on the orphan train, ends up overcoming so much. The novel does an excellent job of evoking the extreme poverty of 19th-century America. Book One of the novel artfully begins this way:
“In the year 1860, when the Western Great Plain of America was the home of the buffalo roaming, the cobbled hard pavement of New York City was the roofless and only domicile of thirty five thousand children. In our hideous number we scraps was cast outdoors or lost by our parents, we was orphans, and half orphans and runaways, the miserable offspring of Irish and Germans, Italians and Russians, servants and slaves, Magdalenes and miscreants, all the unwashed poor huddled slubs who landed yearning and unlucky on the Battery with nothing to own but our muscles and teeth, the hunger of our bellies. Our Fathers and Mothers produced labor and sweat and disease and babies that would be better off never born.”
The politics of the novel are dead-on, and the comparison to our era is not far off. Just as in 19th century America, women today continue to fight the same battle for reproductive rights, including facing off against the same type enemies.
I personally find America’s backsliding around reproductive rights almost incomprehensible. How can it be that in 2014, Roe v. Wade hangs on by a thread, that abortion becomes almost impossible to obtain for poor women in many states, that abortion providers are actively persecuted and even murdered, and that even birth control becomes an issue?
Twenty states now have unconstitutional and unenforceable bans that could outlaw abortion as early as the 12th week of pregnancy with no exception to protect a woman’s health. There are numerous further efforts to chip away at abortion rights, including efforts to eliminate insurance coverage of abortion. Some states such as Texas are also trying to regulate abortion providers out of business. The anti-abortion movement has politically out-organized the pro-choice forces, and it is hard to know where it will end. Pro-choicers remain on the defensive. It is better now than Axie had it, but it would be a lie to deny that every inch of territory around reproductive rights is contested terrain.
One other observation I would make: Poverty remains an almost unalterable fact of life both in the 19th century and now. As a society, we show callous disregard for the life circumstances of the poor. More often than not, we look the other way or we blame the victim. How can we want more poor children born, when our citizens neglect and abuse so many kids that do make it into this life? Don’t we have some societal obligation to the children already born? There is a remarkable obliviousness to the real lives of children. The sanctimoniousness of the pro-life movement is matched only by its silence about poor and victimized kids who are already born.
Manning succeeds in putting you inside the shunned orphan child. Reading the novel, you feel Axie’s distrust, her suspicion of any good fortune (because it will probably disappear), her desire for a stable family life and her anger at the world. There is a suicide at the end of the novel with some surprising twists and turns. Manning did not remain entirely true to the historical record of Madame Restell. She gave herself the novelist’s liberty to revise. Without saying more about the events at the end of the novel, I will leave the last words for Axie:
“It was the hounds of hell drove me to it. Mr. Comstock with his underhanded sneakery and Mr. Greeley and Mr. Matsell with their lies, and Dr. Gunning that sanctimonious snake. You never NONE of you did care about a WOMAN, no matter how misfortunate, and all of society shall think of its uncharitableness toward the fair sex when they think about me, who only tried to give sanctuary and comfort to your poor afflicted daughters and sisters, your mothers and discarded sweethearts. I can’t no more face the canker of your laws or waste away in your Tombs. So thus I choose to spare my family the pain of the trial about to start at Jefferson Market Court. It’s nothing but a charade. Farewell, and may my death be on the conscience of my false accusers for the rest of their days.
Mrs. Ann M. Jones, April 1, 1880”
(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is an administrative law judge. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer, the Social Security Administration.).