Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue

Cover illustration for Slammerkin by Emma DonoghueOh, yeah, I have a blog. It’s funny how I forget that until there’s something pressing I should be doing elsewhere. I finished Slammerkin over three weeks ago and never wrote a word, but now that I’m trying to avoid writing a mere hundred words on effective virtual communication for my library management course message board, I will happily write as much as I can here instead.

Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin is a gorgeous, stark, startling book, and possibly the most convincing piece of historical fiction I have ever read. Donoghue loosely bases her novel on the surviving scraps of the life of Mary Saunders, a true story (turned morality tale chap book) of a servant driven to murder by her lust for “fine clothes.” Donoghue’s story is rich and complex, though several of the plot points do in fact turn on Mary’s passion for the finer things, its really a story about class and ambition, ownership and control.

Donoghue has clearly researched the period exhaustively, but her work is free of the long, boring explanatory paragraphs that plague so much historical fiction. Much is implied through context; the rest we learn along with Mary as she is inducted first into the world of London’s prostitutes, then into the seamstress’ trade.

The early sections of the novel are somewhat rushed and not quite so compelling as the rest of the work. The story begins in 1861, with Mary, poised on the edge of her teen years and eminently dissatisfied–her home with her mother, stepfather and half brother is squalid, school is prescriptive and dull, and she’s both curious about and envious of the brighter, easier, more glamorous lives of the St. Giles whores she sees all around. Her fall from grace is abrupt and somewhat predictable; she agrees to trade a peddler a kiss for a single beautiful red ribbon, and ends up trading her virginity as well. In the course of a few pages, Mary is pregnant and cast out of her mother’s house to fend for herself on the streets on London, where she’s repeatedly raped and beaten, and, finally, rescued by prostitute Doll Higgins.

And this is where is starts to get good.

The two become close. Mary and Doll lead a wild, reckless, exuberant life. As whores, they roam the whole city with a liberty and abandon not open to “decent” women. They take pleasure in drinking and partying, in their gaudy clothes, in being together. The work is grim, but the girls are practical.

But when Mary develops a lingering, dangerous cough, she goes to the Magdalen Charity Hospital to recover–maybe even to straighten out and leave whoring behind. There, she becomes a skilled seamstress. However, the oppressive religious and moral demands of the place soon send her back out into the city where she stumbles into a fight and ends of fleeing for her life. With all other options exhausted, Mary heads for the village of Monmouth, her mother’s hometown, and talks her way into a job as a servant to her mother’s old friend, seamstress Jane Jones.

This is where it gets really good.

With Jane Jones, Mary finds the kind of companionship and mentorship that she clearly craves; the two become friends, almost family. Yet Mary is still ambitious and driven, she still longs to be more than a servant, still aspires to wealth, ownership, a life of ease, control over her own destiny–and she’s still willing to sell herself to get them.

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