All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

My Notorious Life by Madame X – by Kate Manning

on June 6, 2013

My Notorious LifeMy Notorious Life by Madame X
Kate Manning
Bloomsbury Publishing
2013, 438p
Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ

Axie Muldoon is the eldest of 3. It’s her job to look after her younger siblings, sister Dutchie and brother Joe. Their father is gone and their mother has injured herself terribly at her job ironing. Axie and her siblings trawl the streets begging for scraps and coin.

One day they are found by someone from a Christian organisation who persuades Axie’s mother to let them go and be adopted by families in Illinois. To Axie’s horror they are split up – pretty Dutchie and young Joe are snapped up by families immediately but Axie is older and more mouthy and she finds herself soon on her way back to New York, back to her mother.

After her mother dies following complications from childbirth, Axie finds herself taken in by Mrs Evans as a maid but she soon becomes more of an assistant. Mrs Evans is a midwife, frequently attending births in their local neighbourhood but she also helps with more than that.

After Mrs Evans’ death, Axie begins putting what she has learned into practice. She marries fellow street urchin Charlie Jones and she begins making potions for women to help with common ‘female complaints’. Axie not only helps with midwifery but she also begins advising women on matters such as avoiding contraception and also taking care of pregnancies that may be unfortunate, unwanted or the result of abuse. Axie believes in empowering women to make their own choices and the money rolls in as women buy her potions and seek her advice. She and Charlie move up in society due to their wealth but someone is gunning for her.

There are people – men – out there who do not believe that contraception is a right and that what Axie practices is evil and nothing short of murder. She is arrested, incarcerated, judged by society. But Axie vows that her alter ego, Madame DeBeausacq, will not bow down to pressure and retire. She will help those that require it, no matter the cost.

My Notorious Life is set in New York in the 1860’s and is loosely based on the life of midwife Ann Trow Lohman. Axie was raised in shocking poverty, where women became pregnant over and over, where women died in childbirth, where a young girl could be ruined in five minutes. A woman’s options were few in this time and Axie experiences the horror of an unassisted childbirth all too vividly. She learns many things from Mrs Evans and it soon becomes known that if you need something taken care of discreetly, the woman known as Madame DeBeausacq can help.

This is a novel that should appeal to every woman out there. It’s unabashedly feminist, it underscores the shocking lack of rights a woman had over her body in this time, rights that women have fought hard to claim and are threatened every day by people (read men) who think that they know better and can judge on issues of abortion, contraception, what constitutes rape and abuse. As a huge advocate for a woman’s right to choose and take control over her own body and her own decisions, I knew this book was going to be an interesting read.

Axie is strong, she’s mouthy and she’s determined. Clever but uneducated. She knows that what she’s doing is the right thing for the women that seek her out – the woman that have half a dozen mouths to feed already and no money, the women who have nearly bled out in childbirth before, the women who are young, unmarried and who have been taken advantage of. But to others, it’s something wicked and punishable by death. Despite the threat constantly hanging over her head and figures like Anthony Comstock gunning for her, stooping to low tactics in order to gain even a shred of proof as to what she is doing, Axie soldiers on. She continues giving advice on how to avoid pregnancies, she continues delivering babies and she continues quietly making some pregnancies cease to be.

But this novel is much more than that. It’s also the story of a family torn apart by a well meaning organisation and one woman’s hellbent determination to be reunited with her siblings after decades. Axie never gives up on finding Dutchie and Joe, who have gone on to be adopted by families and never had to return to the streets, to fight to eat and fight to survive like she did. Despite her humble beginnings, Axie has risen to be amongst the wealthiest in New York, even though some people still refuse to acknowledge her. But all the money in the world doesn’t mean as much to Axie about reuniting with the lost members of her family. Both Axie’s quest to find her siblings and her attempts to avoid her circling enemies are equally riveting and I was glued to this book from the first page until the last. It’s a pretty hefty read but it doesn’t really feel like it at all, so engrossing is it. It’s the kind of book I’d love to read for my real life book club because I think it would bring up so many interesting topics and discussions. It has the potential to divide opinions depending on a person’s personal preferences and beliefs. Her relationship and marriage to Charlie was also interesting to me – there’s no denying that it’s deeply unusual and not conventional, much like Axie herself but for the most part, it seems to work for them both.

This is a stunningly written novel, woven with compassion and sympathy, with strength and character. It made me so furious at times, to think of the way women were treated – the comment by a male physician that the only person who should be present at a birth was a man (because only me could/should be physicians), was one such instance! I’ve added Kate Manning’s other novel Whitegirl to my wishlist and I want to track it down ASAP.

This is definitely a book to read and an author to watch.

9/10

Book #139 of 2013

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3 responses to “My Notorious Life by Madame X – by Kate Manning

  1. Marg says:

    I think I got sent this the other day. Sounds like I need to read it!

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