Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

slammerkinSlammerkin, Emma Donoghue, Virago Press,  2011

I love historical fiction but a lot of the time I feel distant from the characters and emotionally apathetic to what happens to them. It is a different time, a different world and I don’t recognise the characters in the humanity around me. I am happy to say this is not the case in Slammerkin.

Emma Donoghue was inspired to write this story from snippets of an old newspaper. The anti-heroine Mary Saunders grows up in a colourless life as the odd one out in her family. Her father died in a riot over eleven missing days and she is well aware that to her stepfather and mother she is an inconvenient girl compared to her baby brother.

Lusting after a glossy red ribbon she is offered it for a kiss but is then raped by the pedlar. Mary Saunders is only fourteen and is thrown out by her mother who fears the threat to her marriage at the disgrace. This is where I really admired Donoghue’s talent. She blends the historical issues with timeless characterization. I empathised with the heroine and her extremely limited choice on how to survive.

I liked the relationship between Mary and another sex worker named Doll. Donoghue puts more of her craft into detailing the friendship between women in this novel than portraying relationships between men and women. Doll’s presence in Mary’s life makes their lifestyle seem more decadent and work more glamorous. Underneath it all swirls the reality of their life full of disease, rape and poverty.

The longing and ambition for liberty and sensory delights is what drives Mary Saunders’s story from the beginning when she was still living a virtuous life in the damp nagging cellar.

Was it any wonder, then, that she prefered to dawdle away the last of the afternoon at the Dials, where seven streets thrust away in seven different directions, and there were stalls heaped with silks and live carp butting in barrels, and gulls cackling overhead, and the pedlar with his coats lined with laces and ribbons of colours Mary could taste on her tongue: yellow like fresh butter, ink black and the blue of fire? Where boys half her size smoked long pipes and spat black on the cobbles, and sparrows bickered over the fragments of piecrust? Where Mary couldn’t hear her own breath over the thump of feet and the clatter of carts and the church bells, postmen’s bells, fiddles and tambourines, and the rival bawls of vendors and mongers of lavender and watercress and curds-and-whey and all the things there were in the world?

What d’ye lack? what d’ye lack?

The nightmarish conflict between society’s view of Mary’s former work and a domestic household in the latter part of the book is jarring and fraught with tension to read. Donoghue addresses the hypocrisy of selling women’s bodies morally through marriage in the eighteenth century or immorally through prostitution and the men who have bought both. At the heart of it is Mary Saunder’s self destructive ambition. It is not her ambition that is dangerous but the self-destructive disregard she increasingly has for her own safety and the disdain and pity she has for those around her.


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