A classic coming-of-age story…
Mary, the daughter of a poor seamstress, longs for fine clothes as her neighbours hunger for food and warmth. For the love of a gorgeous red ribbon, she is seduced into a life on the cold, murky streets of late 1700’s London. Her saviour is Doll, a gaudy young woman who takes her under her wing. But Mary soon discovers that she can’t escape her past…
This book is tragic, raw and controversial but I have to say I enjoyed it, as much as one can enjoy such a sad story. The novel focuses on Mary Saunders, who is born into a lower social class in 17th century London and subsequently has limited options in life. While other young women around her make compromises and accept their lot in life, Mary is altogether different. She has always dreamed of extravagant dresses, sumptuous fabrics and a high lifestyle. It’s this very desire for beauty, a single scarlet ribbon in fact, that begins her descent into the darker side of the city and changes the entire course of her life…
“Instead, she stretched out her hand to the worn red ribbon in Doll’s wig. Was it the same one, she wondered, the first one, the ribbon the child Mary had set her eyes and heart on at the Seven Dials, three long years ago?”
In Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue does such an incredible job of writing 17th century London. From the smallest details about the clothing, the streets of London to the general atmosphere of the novel, it feels so authentic. Reading Donoghues descriptions of old London, it’s all too easy to imagine the misses walking along Seven Dials, vendors selling their wares and the upper classes walking along Regent Street. Donoghue also highlights the corruption of the city where young girls would resort to prostitution to make ends meet, where stealing, brutal hangings and other distasteful activities were the norm. The attention to detail and historical accuracy is probably my favourite aspect of this novel, although it was hard to stomach at times.
The novel is primarily told through the perspective of Mary, but occasionally some other characters point of view are sprinkled in. From reading other reviews, most people seem to have a really intense dislike for Mary but I’m somewhere in the middle. I can see other readers frustrations and on some points I have to agree, she is unrelenting, stubborn and sometimes stupidly so. She’s a hard character to sympathise with but I did find myself sympathising with her, despite the poor choices she makes, she is still a young, misguided girl. It’s hard to believe given the very adult world Mary enters, but she is only 14 or 15 for the majority of the novel. If anything, she is a victim of her time and I did feel for her due to that.
“She’d been through enough to harden anyone. It was none of her choosing; all she’d done was clung on to her life like a spar from a shipwreck”
Slammerkin isn’t a light read by any means, it’s downright depressing most of the way through, but it picks up when Mary journeys from London to Monmouth and becomes part of the Jones family. Mrs Jones is a kind and generous friend of Marys mother, so she takes her in. This portion of the novel was my favourite to read but it felt bittersweet as a reader, seeing the way Marys life could be if only she allowed herself to have something good for once. The mother / daughter relationship Mrs Jones and Mary share is one of the few light and heartwarming moments in this novel. Marys mother wasn’t exactly the loving type, so in Mrs Jones she finally finds a woman who fulfils that role in every sense of the word. Which makes how it all ends, even sadder..
One of the most intriguing aspects about this novel or its conception rather, was the fact that Mary Saunders was a real person. While really limited facts are known about her, Donoghue worked from the bare bones of the story which was that the real Mary Saunders was a maid who murdered her mistress Jane Jones and was reported to have had a fascination with fine clothes and thus she wove the imagined tale in Slammerkin.
Overall, while this isn’t a light and easy beach read, it was still an interesting period piece and Donoghues writing is the star of the show. I love historical fiction and Slammerkin has earned it’s place on my favourites list, despite the tragic nature of the story. I’m definitely going to be reading more of Donoghues work in the future.
★★★★ – 4 Stars
Until next time,