In contrast to the saving graces of the characters in Call the Midwife, the BBC Masterpiece series based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir of her experiences in postwar London, Kate Manning’s heroine in My Notorious Life earns a fortune by helping women give birth and sometimes helping them stop it. Manning’s midwife is based on the real life of Ann Trow Lohman, known as Madame Restell, who practiced as a “female physician” in New York City in the late eighteen hundreds.
Like Restell, Axie had no medical training and had little formal education. Manning weaves a story around her poor background and her longing to reunite with her brother and sister after their mother’s death forces them on the orphan train. Axie eventually lands in the home of an older midwife who teaches her the trade. Eventually, she marries Charlie, another orphan train victim, and they start a business peddling powders and concoctions to cure women’s ailments. Soon the business expands to midwifery and abortion.
Although the fictionalized life of the real woman is embellished with romance, adventure, and a great deal of angst, the story stays true to the misery of Victorian times. When I found the Smithsonian article on Madame Restell, I was amazed at how close Manning came to appropriating her life in fiction. Manning offers a different ending for her character, and you should read the Smithsonian article after you read the book – no spoiler here, for Restell’s real life was just as compelling as the fictionalized one created for her by Manning.
In an interview, Manning noted her purpose for writing was to produce
“a rip-roaring tale from the 19th century. I wanted to write a good old-fashioned story with plot and character and depth, and I don’t want it to get hijacked by a current political debate that really doesn’t seem to go anywhere, you know.”
She succeeded in 434 pages of vivid Dickensian characters with a commentary on America’s never-ending battle over women’s rights. If you missed it when it first was published in 2013, you might consider reading it now.