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Walking a Fine Line In History

by Erin Rubin

Part of LM Voices' Tiny Reviews series

Jennifer Wright's book Madame Restell sets out to rectify an injustice: Madame Restell, one of the most prominent reproductive healthcare and abortion providers of the 19th century and a pioneer of women's bodily autonomy, has been overlooked by history. Wright's book begins by announcing this fact and her intent to rectify it by chronicling the life and career of this amazing woman.

By all accounts (especially Wright's), Madame Restell was a smart, canny, brave, and conscientious abortion provider who did not try to mask the realities of her profession, who provided care on a sliding fee scale that made it accessible to all, and who, by speaking the unspoken, openly challenged the pervasive notion that women's lives were less worthy than the lives of their male partners, husbands, employers, and other family members. To Wright's credit, she doesn't leave out the less admirable stories in order to make her protagonist shine brighter; she includes the prickly or prejudiced moments along with the proud, a frank honesty that Madame Restell herself would no doubt have admired.

Where the book falls short is in its structure elements; unlike its bold subject, Madame Restell can't seem to decide what it wants to be. Is it a page-turning story about a bold and brilliant woman who openly provided medical care that would be illegal in many states today, or is it a general discussion of women and sex in the early 19th century?

The book opens with Madame Restell's arrest by Anthony Comstock, the famous anti-vice advocate and proponent of draconian laws about obscenity, gambling, and other "improper" habits. It's a dramatic confrontation between two leading figures of an emotionally charged moral debate that continues to occupy the public consciousness almost 200 years later. But after this dramatic opening, the book turns aside into discussions on the general roles and views of "women" in the 19th century and how they talked about, experienced, and viewed sex. The author frequently uses quotes to show how these issues were discussed, but many of the speakers seem to be chosen at random rather than for being particular voices of experience or authority, and there are so many quotes for seemingly mundane observations that it slows down the reading of the text.

If Madame Restell is a biography, told in "true crime" fashion and meant to pull its protagonist out of obscurity and into heroic prominence, then the pages of scene-setting about how difficult it was to be a poor woman in 19th century Manhattan function as drag weights on the story's pace. If the book is more a picture of reproductive healthcare and views on sex during the time Madame Restell was alive, then its window is far too small. Manhattan in the 1830s and 1840s was a diverse and rapidly changing place, but it is hardly enough of the world to represent women or people who can become pregnant, especially when it largely focuses on white working or wealthy women. Entire bodies of knowledge, passed down through midwives, healers, culture keepers, and other figures, are missing, as are the contexts in which they operated. If this were a biography, that would make sense; but in the biography version of this book, the hundreds of pages of text in which Madame Restell does not appear feel like setup for a lively narrative that never really gets off the ground. The story is told in episodes, but breaking them up so far apart amongst context takes away any sense of movement or progress through the story.

Wright does a wonderful job creating the character of Madame Restell and pointing out the parallels between her context and ours. Her voice is clear, full of pique and wry amusement, as well as a quiet seething rage about the predicament of people facing unwanted pregnancy. The book gives us cause for reflection on Madame Restell's time and ours.

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