My Notorious Life

Unknown-1In contrast to the saving graces of the characters in Call the Midwife, the BBC Masterpiece series based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir of her experiences in postwar London, Kate Manning’s heroine in My Notorious Life earns a fortune by helping women give birth and sometimes helping them stop it.  Manning’s midwife is based on the real life of Ann Trow Lohman, known as Madame Restell, who practiced as a “female physician” in New York City in the late eighteen hundreds.

Like Restell, Axie had no medical training and had little formal education.  Manning weaves a story around her poor background and her longing to reunite with her brother and sister after their mother’s death forces them on the orphan train.  Axie eventually lands in the home of an older midwife who teaches her the trade.  Eventually, she marries Charlie, another orphan train victim, and they start a business peddling powders and concoctions to cure women’s ailments.  Soon the business expands to midwifery and abortion.

Although the fictionalized life of the real woman is embellished with romance, adventure, and a great deal of angst, the story stays true to the misery of Victorian times.  When I found the Smithsonian article on Madame Restell, I was amazed at how close Manning came to appropriating her life in fiction.  Manning offers a different ending for her character, and you should read the Smithsonian article after you read the book – no spoiler here, for Restell’s real life was just as compelling as the fictionalized one created for her by Manning.

In an interview, Manning noted her purpose for writing was to produce

“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.”

She succeeded in 434 pages of vivid Dickensian characters with a commentary on America’s never-ending battle over women’s rights.  If you missed it when it first was published in 2013, you might consider reading it now.


Bellman and Black

9781476711959_p0_v6_s260x420Diane Setterfield’s strange new fiction – Bellman and Black – is an eerie mystery with rooks (related to crows) as the force behind the lives of the characters. The plot is reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe tale – with dark abstract references to death, greed, and apathy.

After 10-year-old Will Bellman kills a young rook with his slingshot, a mysterious presence lurks in the background of his life. As the boys who were with him – friends and a wealthy cousin – die young, Will prospers as the owner of the town mill, eventually marrying and having children. At each funeral, Will leads the congregation in mournful song until a plague takes his wife and three of his children. His daughter, Dora, is saved on the brink of death by Will’s bargain with the dark stranger who mysteriously appears on the outskirts of each graveside service.

As Dora’s health improves, Will turns his attention to a new venture, an emporium for funeral services that includes clothing and accouterments for the deceased as well as the bereaved. Once again, business flourishes, and Will creates a silent partnership with his graveside savior, not knowing his name, but calling him Black.

The soft ending is not macabre, as I’d expected, but Setterfield is careful to include images that will linger in your mind. The message that life goes on and death is inevitable, no matter how much money the successful accumulate, is tempered with a warning to be accountable.

Setterfield inserts enigmatic information about the black birds between her chapters, prompting readers to associate the character Black with a rook. The references motivated me to find the nonfiction that had inspired her – Mark Cocker’s “Crow Country ” – to learn more about the birds who are both the villains and heroes of her story. The myths and habits of these birds – the crow, raven, rook – have long been evocative of death.

Setterfield set the bar high with her first book, The Thirteenth Tale,  and Bellman and Black seems long-winded by comparison, with too much detailed descriptions of the mill’s operations and the itemization of mourning items. Nevertheless, this book has that same Gothic flavor and dark Victorian mystery that fans of Setterfield expect and will enjoy – a nice break from the cheery optimism of this time of year – a little savory to balance the sugar.

Dickens at Christmas – Dodger

9780062009494_p0_v1_s260x420In the spirit of Christmas – past, present, and future – I am reading a little Charles Dickens on Christmas Day through the clever mystery of Terry Pratchett’s Dodger.  Set in Victorian England, Patchett channels the master storyteller Dickens and his charming fictional rogue, Dodger in an adventure to rescue a damsel in distress.

Inspired by the Charles Dickens display at the Morgan Library in New York City, and prompted by a review in the Washington Post sent by a good friend who shared the outing, I ordered Dodger from my library and it appeared just in time for Christmas reading.  Although listed as a book for older children, adults who know the literary and political references will appreciate the nuances.  Back to reading for me – and Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.


  1. The Morgan Library Exhibits
  2. Washington Post Book World Review of “Dodger”

A History of the World in 100 Objects

Since having an encyclopedia on the shelves was replaced with instant access through the internet, reference books have become obsolete – almost.  One worth having on your shelf is the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, based on a BBC radio series narrated by  Neil MacGregor, Director of the museum. This ambitious undertaking is over 700 pages – full of pictures and explanations of each artefact.

Beginning with “Making us Human,” MacGregor divides civilization’s story into 20 sections, each with five pieces representing eras that range from 7000 years to under 100 years.  Sections include obscure chopping tools, pots, and writing tablets, as well as more the more famous Rosetta Stone and Hawaiian feather helmet.  An early Victorian tea set makes the list, with an explanation of the upstairs/downstairs politics behind the origins of this British custom.

Although I am still slowly making my way through this tome, I had to skip to the last pages to discover what MacGregor identified as the 2010 (date of publication) representative.  He notes…

“What single object can possibly sum up the world in 2010, embody the concerns and aspirations of humanity, speak of universal experiences and at the same time be of  practical, material importance to a great many of us in the world now?”

The solar-powered lamp and charger outbested the mobile phone, because “without electricity mobile phones are useless.” The explanation of solar energy “giving 1.6 billion people without access to an electrical grid the power they need to join the conversation…and a new level of control over their environment..{that can} transform the way in which they live” makes a good case for the future of the world’s poorest populations.

MacGregor tells a story about each item, pointing out details as though you were taking a tour with a witty docent, and his conversational style delivers the mystique of the ages, whether or not you are a student of history or anthropology.  The book is hard to put down once started, but the wealth of information is so overpowering, you must thoughtfully stop now and then to digest the historical significance and insights.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is a book worth having on your shelf to dip into regularly as a reminder of civilization’s ongoing story.

The Butler Did It

Ever wonder where the phrase – “the butler did it” – originated?

After Mary Roberts Rinehart used the butler as the villain in her 1930 mystery, The Door, critics ridiculed the idea that a servant could be the culprit in a murder – just too easy a solution. Since then, the phrase “the butler did it,” has been the cliché comedic solution to fictional murders. Rinehart never actually used the phrase and mystery writers now use the butler only as an obvious red herring.

In Walter and Peter Marks’s 1980s play, The Butler Did It, now popularly staged in local productions, every character is either named Butler or has been a butler. A community theater production nearby inspired me to look for some of Rinehart’s classics.

I’m now reading The Circular Staircase (for under two dollars on my Kindle). Using the “if I had only known” device, Rinehart withholds important information until revealing all in the end to solve the crime, but along the way, her careful plotting, Victorian prose, and clever heroine are keeping me entertained.

“I justified myself by reflecting that if the Armstrongs chose to leave pictures in unsafe positions, and to rent a house with a family ghost, the destruction of property was their responsibility, not mine…”

A crash in the night, half a cuff-link, a golf club, a gun in the tulip bed – I can’t wait to find out whodunit – this time the characters do not include a butler.