Over the phone, Kate Manning demonstrates the mash-up Irish-New-York dialect that’s been in her head for five years. It’s the voice of first-generation Irish immigrant Axie Muldoon, a character inspired in part by a photograph of a 19th century street urchin and in part by Ann Lohman, a forgotten Victorian-era abortionist in New York who became rich but eventually ran afoul of the authorities.
“My Notorious Life” (Scribner: 448 pp., $26.99) is the spirited result. The novel is driven by Axie’s determination, her desire to reunite with the family she’s lost and her willingness to break the rules of a society that was leaving people like her behind.
Manning, who will read at Book Soup on Tuesday — in that accent, she says — spoke to The Times from her home in Manhattan.
Axie Muldoon has such a strong voice. How did you hit on it?
Living in New York, you really are aware of 19th century history; I am. It’s all over the streets. Walking around and looking at the cobblestones and old buildings. … I wanted to get out of this modern, middle-class tone of our times and play around with language. I thought, maybe the past is a rich mother lode of such things, and it is. I like to play with old words and syntax and see if it gives a fresh way to tell a story. I love words like “grannymush” or “livermush,” the music of Irish speech.
Tell me more about the real-life midwife/abortionist Ann Lohman.
She made a fortune selling euphemistically labeled “lunar tablets for the relief of female complaint.” What they really did was cause a miscarriage. Women who were trying to control the size of their families, or if they had an unwanted pregnancy, they were desperate for any sort of services. She made a fortune selling these medicines. If they didn’t work — they did sometimes, but they were pretty dangerous — she would perform a termination.
[The newspapers] called her “hag of misery,” “evil sorceress.” I kept thinking: Was she really that bad? People of her time thought that she actually faked her suicide. That she wasn’t really dead; she would come back and tell her story and reveal all of society’s secrets. Wealthy people who had used her services — the politicians and power brokers and their wives and daughters and mistresses — she would come and tell their stories. And I thought, “Wow, what if she did!”
What was it like looking into the medical details of the Victorian era?
I researched it a lot. I have old, decaying textbooks like “Doctor Gunning Bedford’s Diseases of Women and Children,” old medical manuals, advice manuals for women. I’ve had three children, and I’ve had about every sort of reproductive issue you can think of. I don’t think you can have those experiences without wondering what it was like to have children in the past. There was no anesthesia. There was very little knowledge about what was going on in there. Some of the ideas just astonished me — for example, the notion of the “Milk Leg.” It was thought that mothers who were pregnant, if their ankles swelled up, it was mother’s milk filling them up, swelling them. I thought, “I have to put that in!”
Do you think fiction can be political?
I don’t think that fiction is outside politics, but I don’t think fiction is the place for a diatribe or any sort of political rant. What Axie grapples with is what women grapple with, which is the complexities of these decisions. And she’s grappled with them herself. She wouldn’t be a midwife if she couldn’t make peace with the complexities of the merciful aspects of her work, and the joys of being a midwife, and the sorrows too. I didn’t write “My Notorious Life” to change any minds, but I think that it certainly does provide a context for current debates, and I hope it shows how complicated the whole thing is. Of course I’m a pro-choice woman, but I understand the complexities personally, quite personally.
I really think this is a rip-roaring tale from the 19th century. I wanted to write a good old-fashioned story with plot and character and depth, and I don’t want it to get hijacked by a current political debate that really doesn’t seem to go anywhere, you know. I don’t want it to be branded an “abortion book.”