Ann “Axie” Muldoon is an Irish girl poor in money but rich in family, with a mother and two beloved siblings. When she, Dutch, and Joe meet a philanthropist intent on saving children, she finds her young life spiralling deeper into poverty, this time without the people she loves, as her brother and sister are left behind in Illinois with adoptive parents. Now an orphan, Axie is taken in by a doctor and midwife, learning a trade that will rescue her from the poorhouse but set her up for an infamy her young mind can’t imagine.
Loosely inspired by the life of Ann Trow Lohman and set in mid-nineteenth-century New York City, My Notorious Life by Madame X is a brilliant historical novel rooted in actual fact. While Ann Muldoon didn’t exist in real life, children were taken from their parents in New York City and sent to the midwest to be adopted. Midwives – particularly those who performed abortions – were persecuted for the smallest of visible crimes, as was anyone doing anything perceived immoral in a similar way by the male lawmakers of the time. And Ann Trow Lohman did make an absolute fortune as Madame Restell, midwife and seller of contraceptive medicines under a different name. These historical events, combined with Manning’s gripping storytelling and evocative scene-setting, resulted in an excellent read.
Though Axie is a midwife, her practice is secondary to the relationships that make this novel. This is not only with Charlie, her husband, but with her mother, the midwife who teaches her the trade, the cook who cares for her, her only friend as a girl, her lost brother and sister, and finally the women she cares for and helps in desperate circumstances. Throughout the novel it’s clear that she firmly believes that she is doing right by these women, helping many of them out of a situation they cannot handle, or doing her best to help them avoid pregnancy altogether. As a modern reader it seems obvious that her medicines won’t always do the job she’s advertising, but she doesn’t know that, and she sticks fiercely by the women she’s caring for even at risk to herself, more than once. This, combined with her vulnerability, made me love her. She’s by no means perfect, struggling constantly with the idea that people might love her and pushing against them as a result, and she certainly does some things I wouldn’t personally agree with, but she’s strong, loyal, and ultimately admirable.
Axie also gives women early term abortions, which is discussed in detail. She is a midwife, first and foremost, but it is certainly a huge component of her working life, because women need her for so many reasons. They are too poor to feed another child. They have been raped. Their lover, who was full of compliments and kind words, will not marry them. Their families will disown them and they will live on the street. She says that she wishes the men persecuting her for helping women found themselves in some of the same situations that the pregnant women who approach her do; she’s certain that if that was the case then laws would be different. How depressingly little has changed in this respect in many parts of the world, even with the advent of birth control and women’s rights, which makes this novel resonate even more strongly with a modern reader.
And then there is Axie’s relationship with Charlie, which is never easy but had my romance-reading heart in thrall to the book more than once. From the rooftop of an orphan train to a prison cell to a 5th avenue mansion, their love story is never boring and, although it isn’t the focal point of the novel, so well done.
This book was so much more than I was expecting – a deeply powerful, fantastic novel which reminds me once again that I do love historical fiction. Well worth reading and highly recommended.
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