Back Alley Business
Call the Midwife, Old New York-Style- by Sarah Begley
An orphan, an apprentice, a mother, and an abortionist: In Kate Manning’s new work of historical fiction, My Notorious Life, these characters are one and the same Ann “Axie” Jones, née Muldoon, alias Madame de Beausacq. There’s kidnapping, adultery, train-roof romance—and even a kernel of truth: the character’s inspiration comes from Ann Trow Lohman, alias Madame Restell, a 19th-century abortionist.
While the fictional Ann’s biography departs greatly from that of her real-life counterpart, here’s what they do have in common: a rags-to-riches, a massive fortune built on contraceptive sales, and a very unsavory reputation.
Unlike the historical Ann Lohman, Axie (so named for her propensity to “ax” a lot of questions) begins the novel with two siblings and a one-armed mother. Within a short period of time, she loses all three—two to adoption and one to deadly childbirth. It’s during this tragedy that a midwife takes her in and eventually trains her in the profession. In time, this makes for quite a marketable skill for a former New York street urchin.
The novel spends far more emotional energy on Axie’s pining for her lost family than on its reproductive fascinations—and that’s just how Manning wanted it. “I don’t want this to be an abortion novel,” she said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “It’s not a political treatise.” Yes, Axie’s career seems like her destiny, but in the casual, only half-examined way that one’s destiny might be waiting tables or pushing paper. Until outsiders greet her either with praise or condemnation, she just doesn’t think of what she does as a big deal.
But then the infamous Anthony Comstock, one of the novel’s only historical characters, comes on the scene. Much more notorious than the real-life counterpart of My Notorious Life’s protagonist, Comstock terrorized numerous Americans with an eponymous law prohibiting obscene material from being sent via the U.S. Postal Service. That could mean anything from nudie pictures to pamphlets on contraception. Manning says, “It was thought that his methods were so underhanded: that he would bring newspaper reporters with him while he made an arrest; that he would masquerade as a husband desperately seeking help for his wife; that he would write letters to doctors asking for copies of an anatomy textbook and then arrest them when they sent it; that he really overreached.” Madame Restell was one victim of Comstock’s ruses, and on the eve of her 1878 trial for violating his law, she took her own life.
In looking into the death, Manning found many of Restell’s contemporaries believed she had actually only faked her suicide to escape punishment. This became the premise for the novel, which begins with Axie finding a dead body in her bathtub, though she doesn’t tell the reader whose it is—only that it resembles her enough to pass for her corpse with her husband’s corroboration. Only hours before her trial is set to begin, she escapes in cognito. The narrative then flashes back to her origins and proceeds in a linear fashion through the end of her life on the lam.
The book has a rollicking pace and enough elements of romance and intrigue to give it a book-clubby feel, though admittedly only for a book club comfortable with frank depictions of childbirth and terminations. Squeamishness and politics aside, the novel and the protagonist are both deeply sympathetic of women and the predicaments they found themselves in at a time with fewer reproductive choices, greater medical risks, and harsher punishments for finding oneself in trouble. With its Dickensian characters and plot twists (if not a knack for a sharply-chosen title), My Notorious Life is unlikely to change any set minds about the nobility of Axie’s profession—and it doesn’t attempt to. But it does paint a landscape of old New York that’s both quaint and terrifying, where love can be bartered over a back-stoop picnic and slander awaits around cobblestoned corners. Come for the notoriety, stay for the sympathy.