Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 448 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
It’s funny how movies often come in pairs — think Braveheart and Rob Roy, about Scottish historical heroes; Capote and Infamous, both biopics about Truman Capote; Flight 93 and United 93, about the same plane hijacked on 9/11.
The same happens with books, too. Gabriel Weston’s Dirty Work and Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life by Madame X both deal with abortion, albeit 150 years apart, and were published on the same day earlier this month. But despite the similarity in subject matter, they are very different novels in terms of plotting, prose style, tone and narrative voice.
I read both back-to-back and found they complemented each other rather nicely, but it was Kate Manning’s novel that made more of an impression on me.
Grand, sweeping drama
My Notorious Life by Madame X is a grand sweeping drama set in Manhattan. Written in the first person,it charts the extraordinary life of Axie (Annie) Muldoon, who is born to impoverished Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, forced to beg for pennies on the street, who rises to become one of the richest — and most scandalous — women in Manhattan.
Together with her younger sister, Dutch, and her baby brother, Joe, she is sent to Illinois as part of an orphan rehoming programme and the promise of a better life. But the family is split up when Dutch and Joe are sent to different homes. No-one, however, wants the difficult and headstrong Axie, so she returns to Manhattan heartbroken but determined to find her siblings and reunite the family whatever it takes.
Sadly, more heart ache follows when her mother dies in childbirth, a tragedy that is to have a long-lasting impact on Axie’s life — for not only is she is taken in by the kindly doctor, who treats her mother, she eventually becomes apprenticed to his wife, Mrs Evans, who is a midwife, and learns the ins and outs of the “trade”.
Over time, Axie rises to become the infamous Madame X — a midwife, female physician and distributor of “obscene” material — who the authorities want to shut down and put in jail. But with the help of her clever and supportive husband, she continues to provide a much-needed service for the women of New York, even if she has to go underground to do it.
An engaging voice
One of the things I particularly loved about this book is Axie’s voice — bawdy, colourful, forthright and fiesty — which is written in the vernacular of an uneducated woman who drops her Gs and gets her grammar all in a muddle. (On more than one occasion her voice reminded me of Bessy Buckley in Jane Harris’s The Observations and Mary in Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk, two of my favourite characters from recent fiction.)
But it’s the story that is contained within — which is based on the life and death of Ann Trow Lohman (1811-1879), who practised midwifery and carried out abortions in Manhattan for about 40 years — that makes this novel such a fascinating, occasionally jaw-dropping and often anger-inducing read. Indeed, for much of this novel I could feel myself becoming outraged by the way in which men controlled every facet of a woman’s life and did not allow her to make decisions about her own body. Instead of looking at their own behaviour — getting women, usually their mistresses, pregnant — they chose to condemn not only those women but Madame X who wanted only to help those of her sex who had got into difficulty.
While this novel doesn’t champion abortion, it doesn’t condemn it either — what it does is show how this procedure helped hundreds of naive, often uneducated and sexually inexperienced women, from a life of destitution on the streets. And it also shows how rich and powerful men did what they could to stamp it out by making it a punishable offense that carried a jail term of up to three years. The reader is left to make up their own mind as to how they feel about this, although I came away feeling nothing but heartache for those women forced to make such a decision.
But for a book dealing with such heavy and controversial themes, I have to say that My Notorious Life by Madame X is a rollicking good read and perhaps my favourite of the year so far. It’s not only sensitively written and hugely intelligent, it’s peopled with engaging characters, has a wonderful plot and a distinctive voice that is difficult to shake off. If only all contemporary fiction was so daring — and memorable.