Portrait of a Scandal: the Abortion Trial of Robert Notman, by Elaine Kalman Naves, is many things: a non-fiction courtroom page-turner, a story about illicit love, a tale of Scottish immigrant families in mid-19th century Montreal, and an exploration of some of the social customs and beliefs of the times. The fact that the book describes abortion practices and life in Kingston Penitentiary makes it all the grittier, while the high-profile identity of the main individual — the younger brother of society photographer William Notman — makes the details all the juicier.
I wanted to learn more about life in 19th century Montreal, home to several of my ancestors. But this real-life story hooked me within a few pages, with the mysterious death of a young physician, Dr. Patton. I won’t be spoiling the book by revealing that Patton committed suicide because he mistakenly believed his patient, a student named Margaret Galbraith, had died as a result of the abortion he performed on her. Her lover, Robert Notman, was charged with procuring the abortion.
The book is full of strong individuals, from the young woman whose hopes of becoming a teacher were doomed the minute she fell for Robert, to the lawyers who argued the case with dramatic flourishes. Their story is in excellent hands. Author Elaine Kalman Naves is an award-winning author, having already written a memoir about her own family, a book about Montreal writers and numerous articles for The Gazette.
Many family historians would relate to Naves’ research process, from her frustration with the red tape she encountered at the McGill University archives to her pleasure following Margaret’s footsteps back to the shores of Loch Lomond in Scotland. Much of the material has been culled from sources familiar to genealogists, including newspaper articles, family papers and city directories. Naves has brought these 150-year-old sources together in a way that makes sense to modern readers. And despite only having fragments of information about Robert’s and Margaret’s lives, she has succeeded in bringing these people back to life.
The bibliographic essay at the end of the book is also worth a look. Two of Naves’ favourite sources, Call Back Yesterdays by Edgar Andrew Collard, and Montreal: Island City of the St. Lawrence by Kathleen Jenkins, are probably on many Montrealers’ bookshelves, while the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online is only a Google search away.
Elaine Kalman Naves. Portrait of a Scandal: the Abortion Trial of Robert Notman. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 2013.