You wouldn’t expect, looking at her early life, that Ann Muldoon Jones would be able to become a successful physician and millionaire. She was half an orphan, taking care of her younger sister and brother because her washerwoman mother had been brutally injured on the job. She and her siblings are winkled away from their mother by a smooth talking children’s aide society founder. They are sent to Illinois to be adopted almost before you can catch your breath. From that ignoble beginning, we see Ann (known as “Axie”) grow to become Madame DeBeausacq in Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life.
The initial chapters of My Notorious Life let you know that even at the height of her success, events are conspiring against her. A woman has committed suicide in Axie’s bathtub and Axie quickly moves to swap identities with her and escape the long arm of the law. Manning then takes us back, to when Axie was a thirteen-year-old trying to keep her family together. Misfortune piles upon misfortune until Axie fetches up at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Evans. Mrs. Evans treats the female patients for what are euphemistically known in the Victorian era as “women’s complaints.” Axie trains under her and learns to deliver babies, make “medicines” that would be banned by the FDA in a heartbeat, and how to (again euphemistically) “unblock” uterine “obstructions.”
Axie finds love and has a family. She and her husband, Charlie, grow a business selling fertility and contraception pills before she branches to becoming a midwife and abortionist. Axie is, according to the author’s note at the end, based on Madame Restell, Ann Trow Lohman. Axie lost her mother to a botched delivery when no midwife could be found. The shock and horror of her mother’s death spurred her to help pregnant women however she could. Her means of helping involved teaching family planning and performing abortions for women who had so many children they were being worn down. Of course, Victorian mores and laws were against her. Axie was able to work undisturbed so long because no one was enforcing the laws. At least, she is undisturbed until postal inspector Anthony Comstock brought his crusade against immorality to her front door. Manning includes many details of Lohman’s life in her story about Axie. She includes the accusations of murder against the midwife, the multiple abortions for individual patients, and her immense wealth.
My Notorious Life uses a real story from the past to highlight the fact that our society is still torn on the issues of women’s reproduction. Axie is hounded by (male) police officers, judges, and journalists. A few women snub her socially, but its mostly men that try to put Axie out of business. It’s easy to read Axie as a women’s hero. (I certainly see her as one. I daresay the history was more complicated.) My Notorious Life is a good book if you’re inclined to be liberal about women’s reproductive rights. If you’re not, well, there aren’t many people to root for in this book if you’re not pro-choice.