My Notorious Lifeby Kate Manning
“Exquisitely written and richly detailed, My Notorious Life is a marvel. Kate Manning’s rags-to-riches Dickensian saga brings to vivid life the world of nineteenth-century New York City, in all its pitiful squalor and glittering opulence. I loved this novel.” —Christina Baker Kline, New York Times bestselling author of/i>/i>… See more details below
“Exquisitely written and richly detailed, My Notorious Life is a marvel. Kate Manning’s rags-to-riches Dickensian saga brings to vivid life the world of nineteenth-century New York City, in all its pitiful squalor and glittering opulence. I loved this novel.” —Christina Baker Kline, New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train
A brilliant rendering of a scandalous historical figure, Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life is an ambitious, thrilling novel introducing Axie Muldoon, a fiery heroine for the ages. Axie’s story begins on the streets of 1860s New York. The impoverished child of Irish immigrants, she grows up to become one of the wealthiest and most controversial women of her day.
In vivid prose, Axie recounts how she is forcibly separated from her mother and siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, and how she and her husband parlay the sale of a few bottles of “Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint” into a thriving midwifery business. Flouting convention and defying the law in the name of women’s reproductive rights, Axie rises from grim tenement rooms to the splendor of a mansion on Fifth Avenue, amassing wealth while learning over and over never to trust a man who says “trust me.”
When her services attract outraged headlines, Axie finds herself on a collision course with a crusading official—Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. It will take all of Axie’s cunning and power to outwit him in the fight to preserve her freedom and everything she holds dear.
Inspired by the true history of an infamous female physician who was once called “the Wickedest Woman in New York,” My Notorious Life is a mystery, a family saga, a love story, and an exquisitely detailed portrait of nineteenth-century America. Axie Muldoon’s inimitable voice brings the past alive, and her story haunts and enlightens the present.
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Read an Excerpt
For Bread Alone
n the year 1860, when the Western Great Plain of America was the home of the buffalo roaming, the cobbled hard pavement of New York City was the roofless and only domicile of thirty-five thousand children. In our hideous number we scraps was cast outdoors or lost by our parents, we was orphans and half orphans and runaways, the miserable offspring of Irish and Germans, Italians and Russians, servants and slaves, Magdalenes and miscreants, all the unwashed poor huddled slubs who landed yearning and unlucky on the Battery with nothing to own but our muscles and teeth, the hunger of our bellies. Our Fathers and Mothers produced labor and sweat and disease and babies that would’ve been better off never born. The infant ones, small as a drop of dew on a cabbage leaf, was left wrapped in newspaper and still bloody on the doorsteps of churches, in the aisles of dry goods stores. Others among us was not older than two, just wee toddlers with the skulls still soft when they was thrust Friendless upon the paving stones of Broadway. These kids dressed in bits and pickings. They begged what they ate or filched it. Many never had known a shoe. The girls started out young to sell themselves and the boys turned to thuggery. Half the babies dropped at the foundling hospital died before they had a birthday. The rest of the so-called street Arabs was lucky if they lived to twenty.
Me and my sister Dutch and my brother Joe was nearly permanent among this sorry crowd, but by the mossy skin of our teeth we got turned from that path by a stranger who came upon us and exchanged our uncertain fate for another, equally uncertain.
The day in question I was not more than twelve years of age. Turned up nose, raggedy dress, button boots full of holes and painful in the toe, dark black hair I was vain of pulled back, but no ribbon. And my father’s eyes, the color of the Irish sea, he always said, blue as waves. I was two heads taller than a barstool. My legs was sticks, my ribs a ladder. I was not no beauty like Dutch, but I managed with what I got. And That Day we three got our whole new proposition. It walked right up and introduced itself.
Hello there, wayfarers.
We stood in the doorway of the bakery. If you stayed there long enough, you could get maybe a roll that was old, maybe the heels they would give you of the loaves. We were not particular. We would eat crumbs they swept out for the birds. We was worse than birds, we was desperate as rats. That day the smell was like a torture, of the bread baking, them cakes and the pies and them chocolate éclairs like all of your dreams coming up your nose and turning to water in your mouth. We Muldoons had not eaten since yesterday. It was February or maybe March, but no matter the date, we were frozen, no mittens, no hats, us girls without no woolies under our skirts, just britches full of moth bites. We had baby Joe warm in our arms, heavy as beer in a half keg. Dutch had my muffler I gave her, she was so cold. We wrapped it around my head and her head both, and there we stood looking like that two-headed calf I saw once in Madison Square. Two heads, four legs, one body. Two heads is better than one, but we children should’ve been smarter that day and seen what was coming.
A customer started in the door. This big fat guy with big fat neck rolls over the collar of his coat, like a meat scarf.
Dutch said, —Mister? with those blue eyes she has, such jewelry in her face, sparkling sadlike eyes.
The Meat Neck Gent said, —Go home to your Ma.
Dutch said back, —We ain’t got no Ma.
—Yeah yeah yeah, he said. —I heard that before, now beat it.
—Please mister, I said. —We ain’t. It’s the truth. (Though it wasn’t exactly.)
—Just one a them rolls or a bannock of bread.
And the guy said, —Beat it, again. He was a miserable cockroach in fine boots, but he was not the one who ruined us, that was the kindness of strangers.
So we started to cry very quiet now, me and Dutch, because we had not had food since yesterday noon, standing there the whole morning with pain like teeth in our guts. The scarf around our head was frozen solid with our tears and snuffle.
Along at last came another customer, quite fancy. This one had the type of a beard that straps under the chin, and a clump of hair left stranded in the center of his bald dome that we saw when he removed his tall hat, like a rainbarrel on his head.
With the tears fresh in our eyes, we said, —Hey Mister.
—Why hello there, wayfarers.
Right away he got down low, peering hard at us like we were interesting, and asked in the voice of an angel, —Why you poor children! Why are you here in the cold? Don’t cry, sweet innocents. Come inside and warm yourselves.
—Nossir, I said, —we ain’t allowed. They tell us scram and kick us.
—That’s an outrage, he said. —You’ll freeze to death.
Picking baby Joe out of our arms and handling him, he marched us into the warm smell of the shop. We were hemorrhaging in the mouth practically with want. You could eat the air in the place, so thick with bread and warmth that it stang our cheeks.
—Out out out out, cried the bakery hag when she saw us. The dough of her body was trembling with fury. —Out! I told you.
—These children shall have three rolls of that white bread there, and tea with milk, said the Gentleman, and he slapped down his money bright on the counter.
The dark scowl of the miserable proprietress smoked over at us in fumes. But she swallowed her bile when she seen the Gentleman’s copper and fetched us tea. It scalded our tongues but did nothing to damage the softness of her bread or the crunch of its golden crust. It made no sense to have such a hard woman with such soft bread. We were fainting and trying not to wolf it down like beasts. The Gentleman watched us eat the same as if we were a free show.
—There now, he said, his voice a low burr in his throat, —there you are, children.
Dutch threw her arms around his neck. —Oh thank you kind Gentleman, she said. Her sweetness was like payment to him, you could see by his smile. Even with the grime on her face, Dutch was a pretty child. No one could resist her blarney and her charm, and though she was only seven years of age, she knew this well.
When we were done with the first bread, he says, —Are yiz still hungry?
Wait. Let me get his voice right. In fact, he said it all beautiful, with elocution: —Do you jolly young wayfarers still have an appetite?
And we said, —Yessir.
It was our lucky day then, for he bought us another round of penny rolls and fed us under the glare of the bakery woman’s eyes.
—Children, where are your parents? the Gentleman said.
—Please mister, our father art in heaven, said Dutch. It was the wish to be proper was why she mangled her vocabulary with a prayer. Our father was not our Father Who Art in Heaven, though he was dead. Perhaps he was in hell, what with the one sin we knew of him, which was his death two years before, from drunkenness and falling off a scaffold while carrying a hod of bricks, leaving Mam with us girls and Joe, his infant son. It was just after Joe’s arrival and our Da was celebrating with his lunch bucket and a drop, for he did like his drop, Mam said, coming home every night, so dusty and singing Toura loura loo, a stick of licorice in his pockets if we was lucky and a blast of whiskey in our faces if we wasn’t. —Fill me the growler, there’s a good girl, Axie, he says to me nightly, and I’m off like a shot for the shebeen downstairs and back in a flash without spilling. Then Da would raise the bucket in a toast and sing out, —You’re a Muldoon, dontcha forget it girls. Descended from the Kings of Lurg. The daughters and sons of Galway.
—The Kings of Lurg did not have nothing over your father, Mam said in her grief when he fell. —He was a grand hard worker, and more’s the pity for there will be no payday now he’s gone to God.
After he was gone to God we was gone ourselves, away over to Cherry Street to live with our father’s sister Aunt Nance Duffy, while Mam went out to work as a laundress to a Chinaman.
—Where is your mother then? the Gentleman asked.
—She got an injury, I says. —She can’t get out of her bed for three days.
—And where do you live? he asks us. —Have you warmth and shelter?
—Truth, says I, —it’s the food we miss.
—My name is Mr. Brace. He put out his hand, which I inspected, lacking the manners to shake it. It was clean and soft as something newborn. —Who might you be?
—Axie Muldoon. And these here is my brother Joe and sister Dutchie.
—A pleasure to make your acquaintance.
He did not look like it was a pleasure exactly, and stared like he was a police trap in brass buttons, frisking us in the face to find out our secrets. He was a big gaunt man, with pale eyes dug back in his face, an overhung forehead, jutting jaw, nose long as a vegetable, and big flanges of nostrils. There were hairs in them that I could see from down low where I was. Like any child I was disgusted by the hairs, but hoping to extend his philanthropy just a few pennies longer, I said, —Thanks mister for the bread.
—Certainly, my dear. Still you must know that man does not live for bread alone, but lives by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord.
We gazed up at him without no idea of what he was going on about.
—I should like you to have bread, said he quite gently, —yes, but more than bread. I should like you three children to come along with me.
It seemed he was going to give us cakes and ale and possibly a handful of silver, so I was all for it. He picked up our Joe and took Dutch by her hand, which she surrendered, trusting as if he was Our Lord the shepherd and she was the sheep. Not knowing we were marching off to our Fate, we all trooped out together. I was last, which was to my advantage because on the way out I gave a loud raspberry to the bakery lady. Very satisfying it was, too, and you should have seen her face, the cow. Full of her baking, we followed the Gentleman down the street.
—I would like to bring this bread to your Mother, he says. —Where do you live?
He had a parcel with the telltale shape of fat loaves under the brown paper, so despite Mam’s instructions never to truck with strangers, there was no choice but to lead him home. For bread alone, I done it.
nknown to me, My Enemy Comstock, meanwhile, was in a different order of life altogether, a fussbudget lad growing plump on pie and milk in the bosky dells and stony fields of New Canaan, Connecticut. His muttonchop whiskers was then still dormant under the skin of his smug expression as he pursued his hobby: writing in his diary about how he trapped wee soft bunnies and happy squirrels by crushing them under stones. He still had hair in those youthful days and had not yet acquired the bald pate or rotund shape of an inflated hog’s bladder that was his in later life. Still, photographs of the young Tony Comstock reveal that his slack jaw and dull mean eyes were in place from the time he was in knee pants.
It has been propositioned to me by intelligent freethinkers and kindhearted gentlefolks that no soul is pure evil and while I accept that My Enemy was a dutiful son, a doting husband, a loving papa, I can think of him only as a cabbage-hearted weevil and MONSTER for what he done to me and other good citizens too many to count.
He was just three years older than myself, and though we grew through the same times, we was worlds apart. While I was picking the ash barrels of Washington Square for scraps of gristle, My Enemy romped around his Papa’s 160 acres of pasture, dawdled in the family sawmills where money grew like chestnuts on the bushes. He feasted on ice cream in the parlors of church ladies and went forth on outings to the shore at Roton Point in Norwalk, where (he told his dear diary) he chastised some sailors for looking under ladies’ dresses. Even then he was a prig, with his chin weak and hands folded in his lap. Every Sunday of his boyhood My Enemy sat through four Congregationalist sermons about hellfire and damnation (so that he would know how to inflict these on me) and went to sleep each night fearing the hot breath of Satan. On weekdays he collected stamps and tried (without success) to avoid impure thoughts. He prayed and whetted the knife blades of his righteousness, all the better to smite me and the likes of me, while listening to Bible stories at the knee of his adored mother. Poor Mother Comstock! She had ten children before she died from birthing the last one. Surely she turned in her grave to see the fat poltroon her little Tony became, how he waddled along, huffing like a locomotive and bragging about how he had driven fifteen people to SUICIDE—including MYSELF, his greatest conquest—as if he had attained some esteemed heights of accomplishment.
Many years later, on the Day of our Fateful Encounter, I myself noticed his asthma and panting as he marched me, his trophy, to the courthouse. Even as we drove downtown, his wheeze was pronounced. It is still a question as to whether Mr. Comstock’s heavy breathing was the result of excitement at all the smut he rounded up (to burn, he claimed), or whether it was the strain on his heart that came from carrying around so much of his own flesh.
—Madame DeBeausacq, he said, as he escorted me to jail, —I do the work of God.
—What a coincidence! I cried. —So do I!
—Yours is the devil’s occupation, he said, prim as a doily. —Mine is the Lord’s.
—Perhaps your God is a two-faced employer, says I, —for many’s the time I have been thanked in the name of that same Lord for rescuing his poor lost lambs, which is more than you can say, I am quite sure.
—Your evil practice has come to an end, said he.
At this point, I offered him thirty thousand dollars. —Or more, I said, —if you wish.
He did not condescend to glance at me, but the bristles of his walrus mustache stood on end, while fire and brimstone came from his ears. —Madame DeBeausacq, as you call yourself, I will have you down for bribery.
I will have you down for a yellow-bellied sapsucker, you imbecile, I thought. I stared straight ahead at the liveried back of my coachman John Hatchet, listening to the hoof clop of my dappled team of grays, and adjusted the velvet cape around my shoulders with a laugh. My backbone was a ramrod, the diamonds in my earlobes sparkled in the winter sunlight, and the plumes of the ostrich feathers on my hat waved merrily in the breeze.
—The Tombs, John, and hurry, I said to my driver. —Mr. Comstock is eager to show off his prize.
It did not escape my attention that, as we traveled downtown together to meet my fate, we passed directly in front of Number 100 Chatham, the former Evans abode, with its dirty white paint and sagging roofline. It presented a dreary and unassuming façade, what our Mr. Brace might call a DREADFUL ROOKERY OF THE POOR. But I knew it once long ago as home, as the very place where I was apprenticed, and where I became the one the papers called the Notorious Madame X.
Meet the Author
Kate Manning is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Whitegirl. A former documentary television producer and winner of two Emmy Awards, she has written for the New York Times, Glamour, and More magazine, among other publications. She has taught writing in the English Department at Bard High School Early College and lives with her family in New York City.
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The author makes you fall in love with axie muldoon from the start, what a privledge it was to be privy to her notorious life. Loved every minute of it.
This book is a must read for every woman. It is a story that takes us into our past; a tale loosely based on the life of a woman who dedicated her life to address the adversities arising from childbirth issues. This rag to riches, fictionalized accounting based on the story of Madame Restell, a notorious abortionist in New York City gives readers a peak at what it means to be a woman during the late 1800’s. The story begins with Axie Muldoon who is an extremely poor child struggling to survive on the streets of New York. She is rescued by a reverend of the Children’s Aid Society and soon finds herself taken in by a local doctor and his wife. It is here that Axie learns about female remedies and midwifery skills. The story unfolds vividly, realistically, and takes us into the seedier side of New York and the options women had available to them regarding pregnancies, wanted or unwanted and its prevention. I highly recommend My Notorious Life as a wonderfully poignant novel about a woman who chose a controversial path in life to come to the aid of needful women. It is a shocking portrayal of the hardships women once faced regading their bodies, their sex lives, and the impact of child-bearing. Excellent biographical historical fiction!
I was recently in Town Hall in New York City, a theater created for The League for Politcal Education in 1921. I saw a plaque showing Margaret Sanger's arrest from the stage where she was speaking about birth control. An advocate of woman's rights, she founded the American Birth Control League (now known as Planned Parenthood). With this heroine in mind, I was lucky to read Kate Manning's wonderful novel, based on a true turn of the century character of an earlier advocate for women's' reproductive rights and the desperate situations women found themselves in at the time. Set mostly in New York City, this novel seems well researched and carefully crafted. The characters (some historical figures included) are carefully developed and hold your interest regarding their fate. This is a wonderful book, for women young and old, for those who enjoy historical fiction and those who lean a bit to the left. Religious conservatives would not approve. We've come a long way, but t is a shame that many of the arguments still exist over one hundred years later.
This is a great read! Loved it
Great read and gives an eye opening perspective on a controversial topic
Suggested read. Great book
This book is beyond wonderful. The writing is outstanding and at certain points I could not put it down. Of course there were other times that I had to put it down....I would get so upset, I needed a bit to calm down. Highly recommended!!
After reading Orphan Train our Book Club chose this book. Although there were some disturbing parts we all agreed we were glad we had chosen the book. Both books were very informative about the trains that we knew nothing about.
BEST READ OF 2014, SO FAR! "Inspired by the true history of an infamous female physician who was once called “the Wickedest Woman in New York,” My Notorious Life is a mystery, a family saga, a love story, and an exquisitely detailed portrait of nineteenth-century America. Axie Muldoon’s inimitable voice brings the past alive, and her story haunts and enlightens the present."—from the goodreads synopsis MY NOTORIOUS LIFE, by Kate Manning is a masterpiece of Dickensian story telling—of poverty and ignorance in the New York City of the mid-1800s, as seen from street-level. That it also takes to task, Anthony Comstock, one of the vilest pieces of 'do-gooder' humanity to ever stalk the slums, was just the frosting on the cake for me. Recommendation: Beautifully written, in a language and vocabulary that seems authentic to the period, MY NOTORIOUS LIFE is a page-turner—a must read for any who love stories of 19th century NYC. An excellent compliment to Christina Baker Kline's novel, OPHAN TRAIN. "Necessary pain was not an idea I comprehended, and still do not."—page 94 NOOKbook edition, 441 page
Loved it and learned a lot. Just my kind of book.
I would have enjoyed this book more if the author did not block out several words in a strange attempt at making it look like it comes from a diary. I did enjoy the history about midwives and how they came into existence in New York. Child birth was a dangerous business for centuries due to many ignorances in how to take care of the woman in the process. Many mother's died.
Great historical womens fiction. Very interesting, especially as to the perception if women as less than second class citizens. Young women should read just to get a sense of where we've come and realize some of the old beliefs of the "weaker sex" still thrive today. I'm nt what you'd call a womens libber, but thus is hard, basic, cold factual issues which we continue to deal with as we attempt to make decisions about our wn bodies and health.
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