Kate Manning - My Notorious Life by Madame X
A timely historical drama about abortion and the female body in the Victorian era
After a year of American politicians sounding off about women’s bodies like it was the 19th century, Kate Manning’s novel, inspired by an infamous midwife/abortion provider from that era, comes as a reminder of how grim things used to be.
Axie Muldoon, an orphan from the slums of New York, becomes the apprentice to a woman who is the only hope for the desperate and pregnant. She later rises to wealth through her own skills and ingenuity, but never loses her sense of duty towards those in trouble, nor her fear that everything – family, status, freedom – could all be lost at any moment.
The plot sags in the second half as it becomes obvious where the story’s going, and in her eagerness to defend women like ‘Madame X’, Manning makes her too noble. There are some unpleasant but necessary details which show the risks of backstreet procedures and the social pressures of the time, but the lively, compelling, irreverent voice of Axie springs off the page and keeps the book readable to the end.