Monday, May 5, 2008

Slammerkin - Emma Donoghue

I was first attracted to this book by the blurb I read at Amazon and the fact that it was based on real events.

Born to rough cloth in working-class London in 1748, Mary Saunders hungers for linen and lace. Her lust for a shiny red ribbon leads her to a life of prostitution at a young age, where she encounters a freedom unknown to virtuous young women. But a dangerous misstep sends her fleeing to Monmouth and the refuge of the middle-class household of Mrs. Jones, to become the seamstress her mother always expected her to be and to live the ordinary life of an ordinary girl. Although Mary becomes a close confidante of Mrs. Jones, her desire for a better life leads her back to prostitution. She remains true only to the three rules she learned on the streets of London: Never give up your liberty; Clothes make the woman; Clothes are the greatest lie ever told. In the end, it is clothes, their splendor and their deception, that lead Mary to disaster.

Now after I finished it I can see that little is know about the real Mary Saunders and that Donoghue created a powerful story from the barest of facts. She has knack for describing Victorian London at it's worst and I even found the first half of the book difficult to read as Mary does not have an easy time of it. Mostly ignored by her mother after her father died and she remarried Mary goes to school and yearns for a better life. That wish will make her admire the well dressed whore she sees on her way to school and makes her want to have a beautiful red ribbon. After a fight with her mother she goes out upset to by the ribbon and finds herself raped by the ribbon seller. Unable to tell her mother she tries to hide and forget her misery till an anonymous letter announces her pregnancy and she is thrown out by her mother.

Without a place to go she is abused by soldiers and finally saved by the whore she admired and led to a life of prostitution. Seemingly unconscious of the price she is paying and of how her actions may affect her future life Mary finds she can earn easy money and finally aspire to a better life. She learns But life on the streets of London is not easy and she decides to reform. After some time at a charity hospital she feels imprisoned and decides to go back to the village where her parents came from. There she finds a life with some normalcy as she becomes the servant of the Jones family and after a while even finds her true vocation as a seamstress. She plans to save money and better herself when a conversation with her master shows her that a servant will always be a servant, her love story with a boy also employed in the same home also makes her realise that she can never lead the normal life of having children and creating a family. Desperate to have some money and return to London Mary once again becomes a prostitute while still living and working for the Jones. Her desperation grows and when Mrs Jones takes a drastic action a tragedy occurs.

I must say that I really liked Mary, she was not always polite or nice but she was honest about what she wanted and about how to get it. She could have stolen the money or things to sell but instead she worked the only way she knew to make a quick profit, being a whore. The better things she aspired to were represented by the clothes she carried with her, because clothes make the woman.

In the end I was left feeling life had been rather unfair for poor Mary. She never had much and in the end even what little she had was taken from her. I was left wondering if in that period of so many society rules and with a strong system of classes if one could possible raise from what they were born into and find a better place. It was a fascinating read albeit not an easy one. Donoghue takes us to the dark side of society and there's no happy ending in sight. A compelling story!

Grade: B

Posted also at Historical Tapestry

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