Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

2017: 26
5 of 5 stars
Published 2000

A Slammerkin is a loose over-dress or gown but it also means a loose woman. 14 year old Mary Saunders lives with her family in London. It is the late 1700s and they are poor, barely managing but make their living honestly. Mary lives in a beige and grey world and dreams of colour but her need for colour, the temptation of a red ribbon, brings her to ruin. Thrown out of her home, she turns to prostitution to survive. On the streets, a slightly older prostitute, Doll, takes her under her wing and Mary’s obsession with beautiful clothes and fabrics can finally be financed. For awhile.

Things go wrong, as they do, and Mary ends up fleeing London, finding herself in a domestic position with a couple who do tailoring where she learns more about fashion and fabric but where her independence and freedom to do as she pleases has been curtailed. The temptation to live as she pleases draws her back into the more dangerous life and sets her on the path to ultimate self destruction.

This is historical fiction at it’s best, very well researched and meticulously described. It’s not an uplifting book, not a romance and it doesn’t preach a lesson or have a happy ending. This is Mary’s tale and Mary’s life, for better or worse, mainly worse. Women in that day and in Mary’s situation didn’t have a lot of choice. You married if you could, or you went into service. It took very little to “ruin” a girl and then  your options would be even more limited. Mary’s obsession with clothing seems to represent fashion as putting a false face on how things really are. Clothing can cover and disguise the flaws of the body, can deceive the onlooker into thinking you are something you are not but for someone in Mary’s position, it’s all a pipe dream. Mary’s independent spirit and inability to accept reality lead her to an inevitable end.

Despite all that, the book isn’t depressing or oppressive, just tragic. Ms. Donoghue’s skill at getting it just right is evident. You may not like Mary but you keep reading because you want to find out what happens to her.

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