By Carey Dunne, 24, reporting from Brooklyn, NY, who just found out that her mother is one of her favorite authors.
For the past six years, my mother has been locked in a closet, typing. Evidence of her secret project was always scattered around her desk: an old sepia print of a crabby little girl on a stoop; a portrait of a stout, evil-looking man with a white handlebar mustache and the name ANTHONY COMSTOCK printed beneath; stacks and stacks of books (How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle, Down By The River by Edna O’Brien). I would see piles of paper with NOTORIOUS X written on the front and have to restrain myself from snooping.
Whenever I asked what she was working on, she gave short, mysterious answers. Finally, about a year ago, she gave me her manuscript, all 800 loose pages of it, in a green plastic binder. My Notorious Life, the novel was called. I was nervous. What if all it said inside was “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over? Despite being bogged down with schoolwork, I started to read — and finished the entire thing in two days.
The heroine, Axie Muldoon, made me actually laugh out loud with her furious wit (this is a 19th-century lady who describes one man’s neck fat rolls as “a meat scarf”). And, more than any book I’ve read this year, it’s got a page-turning plot: Axie goes from being orphaned on the mean streets of Manhattan to becoming an apprentice to a midwife, where she learns her trade. As her alter ego, Madame DeBeausacq, she peddles illegal “lunar tablets for female complaint” and comes up against the Society for the Suppression of Vice, headed by her Mortal Enemy, the priggish Anthony Comstock.
I more than “heart” this book. I want to recommend it to everyone I know. As my mother is now — honestly — one of my favorite authors, I asked Kate Manning a couple of questions for I Heart Daily about her new novel and about the battle for reproductive rights that shaped Axie’s life. Though she’s fictional and from the 1800s, Axie’s story is deeply relevant to every teenage girl in America in its portrayal of a time before abortion was legal and the terrible toll this ban took on women’s lives. Stay tuned for that interview soon!
I asked Kate Manning a couple of questions for I Heart Daily about her new novel and about the battle for reproductive rights that shaped Axie’s life. Though she’s fictional and from the 1800s, Axie’s story is deeply relevant to every teenage girl in America in its portrayal of a time before abortion was legal and the terrible toll this ban took on women’s lives.
Carey Dunne: How did this book come to be?
Kate Manning: The seed of this book was planted about six years ago, when I saw an sepia-tinted picture of a little girl, about eight years old, holding a baby on a New York street in the 1870s. It absolutely shocked me to learn that 30,000 children were homeless in New York during the 1800s. I started to write a story about one of them, with the little girl as my muse. I named her Axie Muldoon. She gets swept up in the Orphan Train Movement — which was a real project that shipped 300,000 orphaned children out west, to find nice adoptive families. Many of the kids, unfortunately, did not meet such happy fates. As I was writing Axie’s adventures and struggles, I stumbled upon a scandalous woman, Madame Restell, a midwife who was always in the headlines back in those days. I decided to borrow aspects of her story — including a faked suicide and the profession of midwifery — for My Notorious Life.
CD: What was the reproductive rights situation in America like when Axie was a teenager?
KM: In the 1800s, you might be a mother already! Women married as young as 14, and had a whole bunch of kids. They frequently died in childbirth, and infant deaths were common. There was no anesthesia stronger than a shot of whisky to help ease the pain of labor, and it wasn’t till 1870 or so that doctors discovered that germy, unwashed hands were contributing to the high maternal death rate. There was precious little information about sex, which was only supposed to occur in the confines of marriage.
CD: How did reproductive rights change?
KM: Birth control was primitive. But between 1800 and 1900, the birth rate dropped from seven kids per woman to fewer than four. And that’s because this was the dawn of a new age of reproductive rights. Advertisements for medicines with names like “Lunar Tablets,” or “Portuguese Female Pills” began to appear in the backs of penny-papers. These pills were known to cause a miscarriage, and they were so popular, that “female physicians” like Madame Restell got very rich selling them. Like her, Axie also sells these tablets and delivers babies and helps single mothers find adoptive families for their infants. Unwed motherhood almost always was a cause for women to be cast out of their families. They were shamed and disgraced if they had sex out of wedlock (men were not).
CD: How can teenage girls now continue to fight for the right to control their own bodies?
KM: Teenagers — girls and boys — can start by learning the history of the reproductive rights movement, which is the simple idea that women can be trusted to make their own decisions about pregnancy and motherhood. These rights are under threat right now. Reproductive rights activists are fighting some of the same battles now, in 2013, that early pioneers like Madame Restell — and her fictional alter ego, Axie Muldoon — fought back in the 1800s.