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?