Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

“My Notorious Life”

Katha Pollitt reviews Kate Manning’s new novel about Madame Restell, the nineteenth century midwife and abortion provider who helped women take control of their reproductive lives against the “crude social values” of the time. And yes, abortion for the most part was not banned by any laws, and was widely available and practiced:

… In most states, ending a pregnancy was more or less legal before quickening—the moment when the pregnant woman feels the fetus move, usually in the fourth or fifth month—until after the Civil War. New York State was an exception: there, abortion, unless deemed necessary to save a woman’s life, was outlawed in 1828. In 1845, it was made a crime to even seek one. But these laws were widely ignored. In the 1870s, The New York Times estimated that 200 abortionists were practicing full time in the city.

Most abortionists were midwives, and the most famous, or infamous, of these was Ann Lohman, a k a Madame Restell, “the wickedest woman in New York.” Originally a poor immigrant from England, Restell performed abortions, delivered babies and ran a thriving trade in contraceptives and abortifacients, with branches in Philadelphia and Boston, from the late 1830s until the late 1870s. Although the popular press attacked her regularly, mobs stormed her offices and at one point she was put on trial, Restell and her husband, who was also her business partner, became immensely wealthy, eventually building a castlelike mansion on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. They were unashamed: Restell enjoyed shocking her proper neighbors by driving out in her fancy carriage, dressed to the nines. Eventually due to the tireless efforts of the anti–birth control and anti-“obscenity” crusader Anthony Comstock, who posed as a customer seeking contraceptives, she was arrested—and this time the charges were ironclad. Restell slit her throat in the bath the morning her trial was supposed to begin.

It has taken more than 100 years for Madame Restell to find a champion, but Kate Manning’s rich and vivid novel based on her life is worth the wait. Told as an autobiography secretly written by Axie Muldoon, a k a Madame DeBeausacq—orphan, housemaid, midwife and abortionist—My Notorious Life portrays its slum-born heroine as a defender and savior of women from the horrors of Dickensian poverty, male privilege and their own physiology. Manning’s descriptions of childbirth are gruesome—Axie’s beloved mother dies of hemorrhage and fever after a harrowing delivery: “She paced and squatted and lay down again. Long sounds like the bellows of a cow came from her throat. I stood terrified and useless, watching where she lay in her dark corner.” The scenes of abortion are only a little less agonizing—these were the days when a stiff glass of whiskey was all you got for anesthetic while the practitioner, who had not washed her hands, worked her sharp, unsterilized instrument into your uterus. It took a long time, and if you flinched, you could bleed to death.

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This entry was posted on October 14, 2013 by in Book Reviews.
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