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'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.' Defiant and daring, Axie Muldoon claws her way from the streets up to the dizzying heights of New York society. But as her fame grows and her name hits the headlines, her reputation as the most scandalous midwife of her time begins to threaten everything she holds dear. And one crusading official will not rest until he has brought about the downfall of 'Madame X'. It will take all of Axie's cunning to save both herself and those she loves from ruin...
Based on the life of Ann Trow, better known as Madame Restell, an abortionist in Victorian New York City. My Notorious Life by Madame X is the journal of Axie Muldoon found in an attic that tells the story of a daughter of an Irish Immigrant who was orphaned (with her brother and sister) as a child. The kids were broken up and Axie went on to work as a maid and then assistant to a midwife and abortionist. Here she learnt the tricks of the trade, from the lunar tonics (for relief of female complaints), midwifery and abortions.

This is a fictionalised story of what Madame Restell might have gone through. For Axie she witnessed first hand the trials women go through, from period pains all the way to a pregnancy that will bring shame to their family. In an age before any real understanding of women’s fertility cycles and contraception, pregnancy can mean the final days for a woman. Even for Axie, she was too afraid to have *** for the fear of dying.

Axie Muldoon is a stubborn and fiery woman, who stands firm in her beliefs and won’t stop helping women even when the papers and police are after her. I like the way that this novel didn’t suggest abortion as the answer; Axie often would try to help woman in other ways before resorting to such a drastic measure. There are a lot of interesting ideas on Victorian feminism and this novel tries to explore this, and is often successful at this.

An epistolary novel that explores Axie Muldoon’s life in the form of journal entries meant that you get an insight into what made her tick and motivated her. I really enjoyed the insights and what happened in this novel will both shock, disturb and get you thinking. Without going into my opinions on abortion, I have to say that this book is more a look at how women were treated in Victorian times and the understanding of women. This is what I got out of this book and what makes this one worth reading.

I’m not saying this was a great book; it was seriously flawed but there was some interesting topics explored. I can’t say I enjoyed this one; I often felt it dragged on and Axie’s husband really bothered me. There were fragments in the book that felt came together too cleanly and personally I prefer some untidiness or unresolved tension. I would say I’m happy it was an interesting book but not going to actively recommend this one to people.

I have a strange relationship with historical novels. I find some of them (like for example Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies) absolutely sublime while others (which I shall not name) make me very angry with their sloppy research and complete lack of respect for their subjects. Historical fiction is probably one of the most demanding kinds of fiction, and it also carries enormous moral responsibilities since often it depicts real people who may not be around any longer to correct any major misrepresentations. I do realize that it is ‘fiction’ and as such it allows authors complete freedom of thought but I still think that some of the writers don’t realize the potential injustice that they are involved in.
My Notorious Life By Madame X by Kate Manning is in my opinion a great example of historical fiction at its best, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page of it. Not only did I love reading it, but I was also inspired to learn more about the real Ann Trow Lohman (1811-1879) on which the title character of Axie is based. A brave, fascinating, even if flawed woman, who practiced midwifery and helped women in trouble at a time when medicine was generally ruled by men.
Right from the start I was pulled into the novel by the voice of Axie Muldon, who is just a young girl at the beginning of the story but whose strength of character, determination and pragmatism shine through her narrative. As I turned the pages she grew on me more and more, mainly because she was so human, and therefore prone to some contradictions (especially when her sense of drive was sometimes overtaking her sense of duty). This character is really well executed from start to finish.
My Notorious Life by Madame X is also a novel with an amazing amount of historical detail, and it paints a picture, of a time and place, which is multidimensional, complex and very real. After I finished reading this novel I did a little research which confirmed the accuracy of the content. I recommend to anybody to read through Ann Trow Lohman’s trial reports, the copies of each you can see on Kate’s website. It is a true case of “you’ve got to read it to believe it”. It is truly astounding to see the kind of press coverage that this trial got, and at times it makes current press coverage pale in comparison.
I loved this novel for the fact that it made me think about a lot of issues that women faced then and make me realize how many of these issues are still around - even if in a slightly different form. However, where this novel really excels is in the way that Kate made me see that world through Axie’s eyes, and probably the eyes of a lot of women of that time. This ability to make me imagine how it would feel to be in somebody’s skin is for me always the mark of a great writer. This skill added to simply a great story (from rags to riches) that most readers always enjoy is truly a winning combination. Anybody that loved books such as The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman or The Birth House by Amy McKay will love this story. As a side note: don’t get discouraged by the size of it I can assure you that by the time you arrive at the last page you will be sorry that you are at the end.

A compelling and provocative tale, author Kate Manning blends history and imagination to create a wonderfully rich portrait of an extraordinary character. My Notorious Life is loosely based on the history of 19th-century New York midwife and abortionist Ann Trow Lohman, better known as Madame Restell.

The narrative of this tale is in the first person point of view and takes the form of a journal, chronicling the life of Axie (Ann) Muldoon. It begins with thirteen year old Axie begging with her younger siblings, sister Dutchie and brother Joe, on the streets of New York and follows her rising and falling fortunes after being separated from her family and eventually apprenticed to Mrs Evans, a Manhattan midwife who also treats ‘womens troubles’. Reunited with fellow street urchin turned print setter and aspiring journalist, Charlie G Jones, whom she marries, the death of Mrs Evans and the couple’s poverty inspires Axie to manufacture and sell medicinal aids for female complaints, a business that soon expands to include advising women on matters such as contraception, and offering both midwifery care and early term abortions for those desperate enough to seek them.

Axie is a character who will get under your skin. Feisty, loyal, compassionate and brave, she is an uncommon woman for the times. Manning develops her beautifully from an orphaned 13 year old street rat to a wealthy wife, mother and midwife. Her journey from ‘rags to riches’ is remarkable but the fine clothes and fancy decor doesn’t changes who she is, despite the veneer of wealth.

For Axie, whose own mother died from childbirth fever, abortion was a practice that she honoured despite its unpleasantness. I found Axie’s initial ambivalence interesting, while she understood the desperation of women worn out by childbirth, girls taken advantage of by their ‘guardians’, women seduced by the sweet nothings whispered by those they loved, it took her some time to recognise the value of the service she provided.

The social portrait of 18th century America is brilliantly drawn. The disparity in class, economic and educational opportunities, the lack of social welfare and the unfettered misogyny of religion, politics and government. Central to My Notorious Life however are the issues that women faced as marginalised members of society with few rights.

With the distinct lack of contraceptive options in the late 19th century women had little control over their fertility. For wives who were unable to refuse *** with their husbands, multiple pregnancies increased the already high risk of death in childbirth or other crippling complications.
Women were also particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and assault, and as men abdicated any responsibility with impunity, once impregnated they were ostracised by society.
As such, women relied on abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies and at the time it was a accepted practice, though not openly discussed. Home remedies such as gin and hot bath, concoctions with dubious medicinal qualities such as the type Axie sells after leaving the Evans were tried while others sought out a sympathetic midwife for a abortion. The procedure, as long as it was performed before the ‘quickening’ was not made illegal until Comstock began his moral crusade, backed by (male) doctors who were determined to wrest control of obstetric practices away from midwives.

While My Notorious Life explores the history of social and health issues it is foremost a remarkable and compelling story that I could not put down. I found it fascinating, thought provoking and thoroughly entertaining and I offer it to you with my highest recommendation.

"My Notorious Life by Madame X" by Kate Manning is one of the best books I have read in a long time. The book is based loosely on the story of a real life midwife from the late 1800's. The day I received the book I started reading and did not stop for two days until I had finished as I was completely engrossed!
The book follows the life of Axie Muldoon, later to known as the very notorious Madame X. Axie's life was a struggle from the very beginning and the story starts off by introducing Axie and her little brother and sister out scavenging for food to survive as thier father had long since passed away and thier mother had just suffered a severe accident at work causing major damage to her arm and rendering her unable to work or look after the children. So when the children met a man who brought them all some food and offered to help in their innocence they take the man home to their mother. When he see's the state of their living conditions and their mother herself, he offers Axie's mother to help them, he says by taking her to the hospital and placing the children in a lovely family home in the country, Mrs. Muldoon agrees and is thankful for the offer of help. The children ride in the hoarse drawn carriage to take Mrs Muldoon, Axies mother, to the hospital, it is from here that their lives change forever. After leaving the hospital the children's lives will be changed forever and Axie Muldoon will not remember this man in a kind lght for the rest of her years.
Axie grows up and is taken in by a Doctor and his wife after going through another horrific event. The maid of the house at first takes Axie under her wing and in time the doctor's wife also takes a liking to Axie, who reminds her of someone from her past, and she teaches Axie about the art of midwivery. It is this line of work that will not only make Axie an extremely successful woman who provides a much needed service to many women and families but it will also be her downfall as there are many people who despise the work Axie is involved in.
This book accurately depicts the attitudes and situations of the 1870's & 1880's as well as illustrating beautifully the styles of dress and furniture of the time. I absolutely loved this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who is looking for a great read.

Every once in a while a book comes along which envelops you in a time capsule and carries you off in space and time for a memorable trip back in history. Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life was such a story. After experiencing 19th century New York through the eyes of Manning’s plucky and outspoken heroine Axie (Ann) Muldoon I have not only learned a great deal about a chapter in America’s history I knew little about, but also appreciate the changes in society which have given women of our time so much more control over our own fates.

Born as the eldest daughter of poor Irish immigrants in New York, Axie Muldoon has had to learn to survive at an early age. With her father dead and her mother seriously injured in a work accident, Axie and her two younger siblings are found wandering the streets in search of food and fall into the hands of Reverend Charles Brace of the Children’s Aid Society. Whilst he initially promises salvation from starvation, Axie will later come to see the encounter as a black mark in her personal history when both her sister Dutch and her brother Joe are given up for adoption to farming families in Illinois. Rebelling against a similar fate, Axie finds herself back in New York, living a life of poverty in the household of her mother’s new husband’s family. After the death of her mother due to childbed fever she is taken in as servant to a local doctor and his wife Mrs Evans, who acts as a local midwife and seller of female remedies.

Over the years of service in the Evans’ household, Axie learns some valuable skills from Mrs Evans, which will later set her career as midwife and herbalist – as well as making her one of the most notorious women in New York, the mysterious midwife and accused abortionist Madame X. Facing the fierce opposition of some influential persons of the time and accused of some unspeakable crimes, our plucky heroine must not only fight for the women who rely on her expertise but also for her own freedom.

Based loosely on the true historical New York personality Ann Trow, better known as Madame Restell, Manning explores the common fates of women in the 19th century, when pregnancy and childbirth were often a mixed blessing. With mortality high due to complications in childbirth or postpartum infections, women would flock to anyone who could promise a positive outcome of their pregnancy or a cure for various female ailments. This often included terminating unwanted pregnancies, which was not considered a crime at the time if performed before the baby had “quickened”. Interspersed with fascinating facts about medical and midwifery practices at the time as well as some real-life historical figures (such as the pompous Anthony Comstock), My Notorious Life is one of those novels which provides both reading pleasure as well as education.

Although it took me a little while to get used to Axie’s unique voice, I found myself quickly drawn in and could not get enough of her – outspoken and courageous, Axie is a wonderful protagonist one cannot but admire. With her own mother lost to childbed fever, Axie’s own fear of a similar fate is a great motivator for her to help other women – that this should also provide a source of income and livelihood is due to her clever husband Charlie, who like Axie is a wonderful character I quickly warmed to.

The vast differences in living conditions of New York’s different population groups become evident in Axie and Charlie’s own rags-to-riches story and highlight the plight of many poor immigrant women of the time. However, even money was no protection against unwanted pregnancies or the dangers of childbirth, which sees even the rich flock to Axie for her expertise. The provocative issue of abortion is explored in a way which highlights the choices and medical care we now take for granted and the dangers of childbirth in an era which historically speaking was not all that long ago. Even readers with strong opinions on the subject should find some of Axie’s motivations compelling and thought provoking. Supported by a strong emotional background and three-dimensional characters who appear to be stepping out of the pages of this remarkable novel, it is impossible to close off one’s mind to the plight of the various women featuring in the novel – despite any preconceived notions we may harbour. With desperation featuring strongly throughout all aspects of the novel it is impossible not to get under your skin – at times tragic and sad, other times as a triumph of womanhood against all odds. Some scenes were almost like a punch in the solar plexus, so deep was the pain the women had to endure – it may be quite close and personal for some readers.

I highly recommend My Notorious Life to all lovers of historical fiction. By introducing issues many readers may find controversial, this novel would open a multitude of different discussion points for a bookclub read, even if the debate may get quite heated due to the strong emotional background attached to the subject matter. Definitely an author to watch – her first novel Whitegirl also sounds like a very worthwhile read and is now firmly cemented on my tbr list.

A big thank you to the Reading Room and Bloomsbury Publishing Australia for providing me with a first edition copy of this wonderful novel in exchange for an honest review.


Book trailer for MY NOTORIOUS LIFE BY MADAME X by Kate Manning