My Notorious Life by Madame X | Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Madame X by Kate Manning is the fictionalised account of the story of a midwife and abortionist in the Victorian era.

Notorious Life Manning‘In the end, they celebrated. They bragged.
They got me finally, was their feeling.
They said I would take my secrets to the grave.

They should be so lucky.’

Axie Muldoon, the headstrong daughter of Irish immigrants, forced to beg for pennies as a child on the brutal streets on New York City, grows up to become the most successful – and controversial – midwife of her time.

‘Saved’ from poverty by a well-meaning philanthropist, Axie is sent West with her brother Joe and her sister Dutch. But the kindness of strangers is short-lived and soon Axie returns to the city of her birth, separated from those she loves but determined to one day reunite her family.

When she is taken in by a Manhattan doctor Axie learns the craft that she will live by – and later fight for. As a purveyor of ‘lunar tonic for the relief of female complaints’ she rises from the gutter to the glitter of 5th Avenue high society, and discovers that the right way is not always the way of the church or the law, and that you should never trust a man who says ‘trust me.’ But what if that man is an irresistible risk-taker with a poetical Irish soul?

As Axie’s reputation grows she finds herself on a collision course with the crusading official who would be the righteous instrument of her downfall. It will take all of her power to outwit him and save both herself and those she loves from ruin.

This is a very powerful and often disturbing book.

Let’s get this out of the way – this is probably not the book of choice for you if you are ardently pro-life, or if you wish to have abortion banned. It contains frank and full descriptions of unwanted pregnancy, death in childbirth,

Fifth Avenue, 1878: illustration from The Wick...

Fifth Avenue, 1878: illustration from The Wickedest Woman in New York: Madame Restell, the Abortionist by Clifford Browder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

and the procedure of abortion as it was before the existence of painkillers and safe methods. It’s bloody and heartbreaking. For me, it only reinforced my gladness that should I ever be in that situation, at least no-one will have to scrape me out with a wire that was ‘sterilised’ in boiling water.  I have never been more grateful for the existence of free sexual health clinics.

It’s not an easy read.  Manning is uncompromisingly brutal in her descriptions of the harshness of 1800’s poverty and despair. You can almost smell the filth, mud and rot. The unfairness of it grinds at you, tiring you out as you read. She writes well as Axie, managing to make you believe that the woman relating the story was once illiterate, without making it impossible to read. As a character, she is believable, entertaining, sharp and vivid. She’s not always likeable, but you always understand her reasoning. She is bright on the page, and as the story goes on, you feel you know her.

The story itself is – ouch. Axie succeeds, but not without bringing pain to herself and those around her. The ending made me cry, it was so deeply, truly unfair. A hard book, but a good one.

5 out of 5.

I got this book through the Goodreads First Reads program.

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