Slammerkin

Before reading any further, please read my review of Room by Emma Donoghue. And/or, read Room by Emma Donoghue.

…Done? Proceed.

If you can picture the extreme opposite of Room, it might come pretty close to Slammerkin (also by Emma Donoghue), a historical fiction novel. Honestly, I only picked up this book because it was $3 and by the same woman who wrote Room, but I’m so glad I did. First of all, it is way out of my comfort zone; second of all, I’m really impressed that Emma Donoghue had/has such a variety of subject matter in her head. But I suppose that’s what makes a good writer.

So Slammerkin is about Mary Saunders, an 18th century Londoner who becomes a prostitute at the ripe old age of 13. Mary’s mother kicks her out when she finds out Mary is no longer a virgin — even though it was because a man forced himself on her — so Mary decides right then and there she will never again feel like she’s being forced to do anything. Instead, she will make all the rules about where and when and with whom she has sex. I sort of understood her mentality there, I guess, but the descriptions of being a prostitute in London at that time — including diseases and, I use this term loosely, abortions — are truly stomach-churning. Mary’s new best friend and fellow teen prostitute explains the ways of this new lifestyle, allows Mary to live with her and reveals that clothing is really all that matters. (This leads Mary to a life-long obsession with clothing, hence the title — “slammerkin” is a type of dress.) One particularly harsh winter Mary becomes very ill, and under her friend’s guidance turns to a special hospital that “cures” girls like her.

While at this special hospital, Mary discovers a talent other than sex: sewing. She becomes very good at it, which is ironic because sewing is precisely what her mother always wanted her to do with her life, and is favored by the woman running the hospital because of this skill. At this point in the book I truly thought Mary would stay at the hospital to get even better at sewing and then get out of there and set up a nice little career and eventually own all the fancy clothes she wants. (So, I suppose I expected a self-made Cinderella story). Alas, Mary runs away from the hospital and finds her friend dead in an alley. Rather than stay in London and suffer the same fate, Mary flees to Monmouth to look up her mother’s old friend Jane Jones. Upon finding Jane, Mary makes up a story about how her mother’s dying wish was for her to find Jane so she could work for her as a house servant/sewing helper (Jane has her own sewing business), and Jane believes every word. Once again, I thought Mary was going to turn things around and focus on sewing/being a good employee to Jane, and she does. For a little while. Eventually Mary gets the urge to make more money in her own way, so she sets up a little prostitution business at the local inn. She is found out by Jane’s husband and another house servant, and in a fit of passion she kills the only person who has ever been truly kind to her.

I struggle with books like this, in which the main character is so unlikable. I kept rooting for Mary to change, to realize there was another way, to appreciate her second and third chances, but she kept ruining it and I kept getting mad at her for it. Also, I’ve started going beyond the last pages of books and reading the little author notes and acknowledgments, just out of curiosity, and upon doing so for this book I discovered that Mary Saunders was in fact a real person who really killed Jane Jones. The reason why is blurry, according to Donoghue, and the back story is obviously a work of fiction, but still. Interesting.

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