Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue, Harcourt Inc, 2000, 334 pp
A slammerkin can mean either a loose dress or a loose woman. Emma Donoghue is a fine writer whose most recent novel, Room, was short listed for the Booker Prize of 2010. Recently I reviewed Room for BookBrowse and since I had never read anything by Donoghue, much less heard of her, I did a little homework.
This novel is historical fiction in the sub genre of prostitute tales, of which I have read my share. Memoirs of a Geisha, The Crimson Petal and the White, Forever Amber, come to mind. I am sure there are more. Donoghue adds her own twist.
Mary Saunders turned 14 in the slums of London, 1760. Her father was dead, her stepfather was not happy about having to feed her, her mother was a piecework seamstress whose eyes were going. Like many impoverished children, Mary had an eye for color, for glitter and shine. And though her father's wish that she be educated had been carried out at great hardship by Mary's mother, the young girl knew that her future was bleak.
Within months of that 14th birthday, Mary ran away and soon slipped into prostitution as a means to stay alive. Despite the disgusting aspects of her life style, for the first time she was having fun, wearing colorful and glittering gowns, having a best friend. Two years later Mary died by hanging, convicted of theft.
Slammerkin is a great read, due to fine historical details, atmosphere, characters and storytelling. Never dull, never overbearing in the details, yet always realistic, the novel captivated me. The twist is this: Mary had a loving mother, education, moral training and intelligence, but even with all that, she could not rise out of poverty, servitude or oppression. This novel makes you think about why that is and how it could possibly ever change for men or women.
Doll, a seasoned London prostitute only four years older than Mary, who met with a gruesome end, taught her friend three rules: Never give up your liberty. Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told. All true; still not enough.
(Slammerkin is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)