Axie Muldoon wants: nice clothes, a big house, a meal in her belly. As an orphan on the streets of 19th century New York, these things seem out of reach. And yet, by the time she is thirty, Axie (AKA Madame Beausacq) has them all. Along the way, she rides the orphan trains, delivers her mother's baby, apprentices to a midwife, gets married, has a child, and becomes a midwife herself to the elite of New York society. She also tangles with Anthony Comstock, moral crusader of the Gilded Age. You see, being a midwife at this time involves more than delivering babies. It means that one provides all kinds of gynecological advice and services, including the occasional abortion. A real person, Comstock is founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and he is determined to enforce the laws on the books involving obscene materials, which include any information on contraception and STDs, let alone abortion. As "Roundsman of the Lord" he brags that he has driven at least fifteen so-called smut peddlers to suicide. Axie, who has strong opinions on women's health, saves her greatest (and most entertaining) vitriol for him. The battle between the two is the climax of Kate Manning's My Notorious Life.
This is a rollicking book, full of drama to keep you turning the pages. Axie's voice is also one to savor: while not born in Ireland, her speech is full of inflections from the land her parents emmigrated from. One really gets a feel for the time and place when the story occurs. While at times Axie seems loathe to admit any motivation but material gain, she is full of outrage for the wrongs visited on women by both individual men and the patriarchal society in which she lives. Axie is, after all, a softie at heart. Some may question Axie's compassionate nature with her willingness to provide abortions, but as her teacher points out, "you have to live with the complexities." Based in part on a real person, My Notorious Life is a good time and will make you want to cheer.
Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies. A young woman survives scheming relatives and adverse conditions to become one of the most alluring (and wealthy) madams in San Francisco. This book is full if incident and period detail.
The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire. A fictionalized account of Constance Fenimore Woolson, who travels to Europe and begins a tumultuous realtionship with Henry James. She admires his literary quality, he envies her literary popularity .
In America by Susan Sontag. A popular Polish actress moves to the American West with her entourage to experiment with utopian communal life. Failing that, she goes on a triumphant national tour with her theater company. Great period detail.