Slammerkin: Emma Donoghue

★★★½

From isolated nuns in medieval Norfolk to the harlots of late Georgian London… an interesting progression. This, the first book by Donoghue that I’ve read, is the tale of Mary Saunders, who goes to ruin for want of a red satin ribbon. Living with her mother, her hated stepfather and her infant stepbrother in a basement room on Charing Cross Road, Mary is troubled by ambition. She is bright and curious and romantic, and wants more from her future than to become a seamstress like her mother and fade into obscurity, poverty and bitterness. Her education at the Charity School has only whetted her appetite for knowledge and her dreams are full of fine clothes and balls and all the stuff of 18th-century romance. Fans, fine carriages and gentlemen might be impossibly remote from Mary’s humble life, but bright colours and billowing skirts are there to be had… at a price.

On her way to and from school, Mary has seen a red ribbon twined through the powdered hair of a Covent Garden prostitute and the colour has captivated her ever since: a flash of vivacity in a world of sober grey and beige and brown. The desire for the ribbon is what leads her to cross the line from the anemic life of ‘virtue’ propounded by her school and her mother, into the vivid and rowdy life of Rat’s Castle in the Rookery near Seven Dials. Here a woman can wear bright clothes and be her own master and live a life of liberty; it seems a fine return for simply opening her legs now and then. With her friend and tutor Doll Higgins, Mary learns how to have power over a man and how to assert herself in the warrens of the London streets, where there is freedom to be found… but, again, at a price.

Donoghue handles her story with ease and bawdy, wry humour. She is refreshingly able to divorce the mores of the time from those of today (did I mention that Mary is only fourteen?). As an adoptive Londoner, I thoroughly enjoyed following her around the streets and squares of the 18th-century city, many of which I know well today. I even spent an evening at the Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street during Freshers’ Week for my MA (yes! It’s still there, though slightly more upmarket than it was in Mary’s day). And, if the streets are conjured up with conviction, so are the numerous denizens of Georgian London: the Misses, pimps and cullies; the mollies and Reformation men. I loved the glimpse that we have of an unnamed Dr Johnson and Boswell (which went against my theory of the ‘Good Morning Dr Johnson School of Historical Fiction’, which I will explain one day).

The Georgian period swaggers out of history with a vengeance, with its stays loose, beckoning you to follow it. And, speaking of stays, I was fascinated by Donoghue’s knowledge of Georgian costume: the various types of jackets (men’s and women’s), the eponymous loose gown called a slammerkin, the embroideries and fittings and foaming lace ruffles. Not to mention the silks, velvets and gauzes. The book is as sensual in its appreciation of finery as it is in its subject matter, and it gives the story a real period weight.

Where I found it more difficult was in the character of Mary herself. I didn’t really like her, and I’m not sure that we’re meant to. Part of my dislike must be credited to Donoghue’s success in making her feel so much like a real person that I can have these kinds of reactions to her. I approved of her ambition and her initial desire to better herself, but as the story continued I began to feel that Mary’s original motivation had been twisted and cheapened. She no longer wanted to make more of herself than her parents had done; she  just seemed to be in search of an easy, indulgent life. More irritatingly, she became proud rather than ambitious and seemed to feel that she was already better than those around her. This was true of her relationship with her mother, but also of her attitude to Doll (who perhaps is less intelligent than Mary) and of her condescending relationship with the warm and welcoming Mrs Jones in Monmouth, who Mary seems to think of as a bit simple. And so, on the one hand, I really didn’t warm to Mary. On the other, I was impressed by how Donoghue builds this complex, naturalistic character and manages to avoid turning Mary into yet another historical-fiction tart with a heart of a gold (which was a stereotype that poor Doll fell into, I thought).

Donoghue’s strength seems to be in taking a piece of found history, or a moral panic (in Room) and building an absorbing story on the few facts that she has. She collected the bare details of Mary Saunders’s life from the newspapers of the time and has fleshed them out into a novel which is alternately funny, sad and depressing. I enjoyed this, but I didn’t love it as I did The Crimson Petal and the White, which shows us an ambitious prostitute of a different age and a very different cut. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued to see that Donoghue has based other stories around fragments of odd and unusual history: I laughed when I saw that she’s written a book of short stories titled The Woman who gave Birth to Rabbits, in which the title story is about Mary Toft, from 18th-century Surrey, who convinced the country that she had… well, given birth to rabbits. She cropped up in one of my history courses and I was thrilled to see that she’s caught Donoghue’s eye. So I’ll be looking out for that one.

Does anyone have any other Donoghue recommendations? Should I read Room?

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21 thoughts on “Slammerkin: Emma Donoghue

  1. Isi says:

    I still haven't read the whole review (I will come back later), but yes, I've just finished Room and you must read it. I will post my review soon (it is already corrected by my teacher, hehe).

  2. Heloise says:

    This one has been part of my TBR pile for ages, I really should get around to reading it some time. I haven not read Room and have my doubts I'd like it – while the subject matter is no doubt fascinating, I've been getting the impression that her way of handling it might be rather too facile. But of course I might be wrong there. 😉

    Also, I now want to know everything about your theory of the 'Good Morning Dr Johnson School of Historical Fiction'. 😛

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes! I was hoping someone would ask 🙂 First of all, I want to emphasise that this is all very tongue-in-cheek and not a remotely serious theory, so I don't want people cropping up in the comments and listing books where it doesn't happen. *stern look*

    So: it all started when I was reading a book a long time ago – sadly I no longer remember what it was – but it was a piece of historical fiction and it was guilty of precisely the thing that I'm about to describe. Take a hypothetical novel set in late Georgian London. The main character and his friend are strolling down the Strand on their way to a coffee house. Suddenly the friend bumps into a passer-by. He stops, apologises, recognises the passer-by and exclaims, “Oh, good morning Dr Johnson!” and then Dr Johnson carries on and the characters go in the opposite direction and never the twain shall meet again.

    My point is that the author wants to prove they've done their research. They know that Dr Johnson was rocking around London at the time, and they think it will give their novel more gravitas if they include him as a kind of historical reference point. Now, I have no problem with this if Dr Johnson is actually a character in the novel, but if I get the feeling that the author is just including him as a kind of literary name-drop, then I get annoyed and there is much gnashing of teeth. This applies even if the famous historical figure is glimpsed passing in a carriage, is pointed out to the hero(ine) and makes no further appearance in the plot. When this sort of thing does happen, I'm always fascinated that famous people appeared to be so widely recognised in the days before photographs.

    I exaggerate, of course. There are many, many excellent novels where famous historical figures show up in a plausible and engaging way and *don't* make me angry. But, now and again, I do come across books where it feels as if I'm at a drinks party where someone just won't stop name-dropping the famous people whom they've nearly met. And so I invented the 'Good Morning Dr Johnson School of Historical Fiction' as a term for these kinds of novels.

    The wonderful thing in this book is that Dr Johnson himself does stroll by, but *isn't actually named*, and so it feels less like wanton name-dropping than a bit of an in-joke between the author and the reader who picks up on it. And that made me very happy.

  4. Heloise says:

    Hehe, I know what you mean, although I seem to remember it from movies rather than books – but then I don't read nearly as many historical novels as you do… 😉 – That kind of namedropping reminds me a bit of those memoirs whose writers try to show off their own importance by telling everyone how many celebrities they have shaken hands with – which, to the reader, tends to come across as embarrassing rather than as impressive.

  5. Helen says:

    I enjoyed Room, once I got used to the child narrator – his narrative voice seems to be something people either love or hate. Apart from that I thought it was a very gripping story and while it was disturbing in places, it wasn't as depressing as I thought it might be. I would like to try one of Donoghue's historical fiction novels, though I'm not sure whether this one or The Sealed Letter sounds most appealing to me.

  6. Isi says:

    I didn't know this book. In Spain there have only been translated 3 of her books, but only Room became popular (and not very-very much), so until your review, I thought Room was her only book.
    I have to say this one haven't caught my attention (even though the cover has!! it's beautiful), but the thing about the rabbits is interesting!! :)))

  7. Emma Donoghue says:

    I couldn't agree more! So even when I referred to Dickens in a story in a recent collection of mine (ASTRAY) I couldn't bear to name him until the source note afterwards; famous names are like stones dropped into ponds, overwhelmingly distracting. Right now I'm finishing a novel set in 1870s San Francisco and going out of my way to have my characters NOT bump into anyone famous.

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh my goodness – hello Emma, and thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment! (And thank you for a lovely book.) It's definitely more fun for the reader this way, too. We can feel a little glow of pleasure at being bright enough to figure out who somebody is without being told. 🙂

  9. The Idle Woman says:

    Hi Helen – thanks for the vote in favour. I'll definitely give Room a go – and as for the historical novels, I can only speak for this one at the moment, but it's a jolly good read.

  10. The Idle Woman says:

    I hasten to add, Isi, that the rabbits are in a *different* book! As for the cover (you know how much book covers matter to me!) – rather like Mary herself with her ribbon, it was the cover that caught my eye from across a crowded bookshop. It's such a stunning edition. This is a hardback one. There's also a paperback with the conventional close-up of a heaving bosom, although to be fair the subject of this particular book makes that more appropriate than it usually is…

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