A Text to Rally the Troops
In the 2012 film This Is 40, a woman approaching middle age who has two bickering children already and whose household finances are none too secure discovers that she’s pregnant. No one asks whether she should have the child. (If that’s married life at 40, I’m glad I missed it.) A few other films, I think, have taken the same stance: pregnancy is unquestioned, while contraception, adoption, and especially abortion, are unmentionable.
Those issues are heatedly discussed elsewhere in our cultue, just as gun violence is. Yet firearms aren’t kept out of movies for fear of troubling the audience. Is someone trying to keep the A-word off the screen?
The word itself doesn’t turn up very often if at all in My Notorious Life, a historical novel by Kate Manning (published in September by Scribner in the U.S.; in June by Bloomsbury in the U.K.). That’s only because its first-person narrator, telling her tale from around the end of the 19th century, doesn’t share our direct way of naming such things. The book grapples wholeheartedly with abortion and a group of related issues—when they arise in the course of its story. And they often do.
The narrator is Anne Muldoon, the oldest of three children of Irish immigrants in New York, called Axie by her mother “because I was forever axing so many questions.” The life she recounts ranges from New York City to a prairie settlement in Illinois and back, from 1860 to 1880, and from a destitute existence on the streets to a mansion on Fifth Avenue, as its narrator grows from untutored adolescence to settled adulthood. Her account is bedecked with lost lingo, little history lessons, and reminders of times past—in the first three pages, victoria carriages and omnibuses and Tammany Hall.
Axie’s life is a coming-of-age story, and it’s also a genuine rags-to-riches tale surprisingly like those spun by Horatio Alger except that it’s written for adults. There’s even a villain, whom Axie calls “my enemy”: Anthony Comstock, a moral crusader who’s a real historical figure.
Manning uses a flash-forward opening chapter to let us know the crisis toward which the plot will build, and she introduces the character of Comstock 79 pages in, though he doesn’t enter the plot until later. Nearly everything in the book, in fact, leads to or supports the central issues. The action, characters, situations, and themes have been woven into a kind of spider’s web: touch it almost anywhere and the vibration registers elsewhere. The world of impoverished immigrants, for instance, in which the story begins, includes many children who are orphaned, abandoned, or can’t be cared for (Axie is one); those children partly explain the concern, on the part of Axie and others later, with preventing or controlling pregnancy. Axie’s discovery of the physical and emotional lure of sex also figures into that concern, as do the rigors and risks of childbirth.
The heart of her tale is her career. Having been taken in by a women’s doctor, Axie learns to make and dispense medicines that “regulate” a woman’s cycle and relieve “blockage”; these must be early-stage abortifacients. When she’s married and needing extra income, she sets up a business purveying these medicines, and later she becomes a midwife as well, which, along with the medicine and advice she dispenses, earns her a surprising amount of money. Eventually, she sometimes does the dangerous work of terminating a later-stage pregnancy, which sounds like what we now call a D&C except without anesthesia. This aspect of My Notorious Life—the nature of Axie’s work, why she does it, why there’s a need for it, why some people oppose it—arouses the strongest feelings, and it’s why the book could become a text for the troops to rally around. (I hope the troops include a lot of men.) Katha Pollitt gives a great account of it from this angle here .
As a novel, it could be called unsubtle, but that’s not a criticism when its effects are achieved so carefully. And as an argument, Manning’s book is the most subtle and convincing kind: one that views moral and legal questions in the light of human desires, feelings, and experience.
Axie is a strong female character and was considered as such in an October 30 event at New York’s Center for Fiction. Part of her story is true, too, including her unlikely-seeming financial success; Axie is derived in part from a real person, Ann Trow Lohman, also known as Madame Restell. How much these things matter will vary from reader to reader, though.
Whatever it means to be strong (capable? bulldog-persistent? courageous?), Axie goes beyond it. She’s funny, she’s compassionate, she’s got native smarts, she remains determined to reunite her scattered siblings (though she’s endlessly thwarted,) she has trouble trusting men, and she’s burdened by the weight of losses already endured and the fear of others that may come. What’s more, the story gets at some conflicts and home truths in 19th-century American life—some of them still current—that don’t depend on Axie’s real-life model: science versus superstition in medicine; materialism versus Protestant and Puritan theology; the near impossibility of a woman finding anything to do other than work in service or marry; the rule of men over virtually every realm of life…
Still, in Kate Manning’s seamless stitching together of fact and fiction, part of the thrill of the tale is knowing that this—or something like it—really happened.
Follow John Branch: