Wowzers. Slammerkin is an amazingly well told tale based on the court case of Mary Saunders, an 18th century Londoner hung and burned for the murder of her mistress. Donoghue takes as her starting point an excerpt from Saunders’ so-called confession, where Mary claims she committed her crime because of her love for fine cloth. The author takes this idea and runs with it… what does it mean to die for “fine” clothing when clothing is a status of social rank?
In this astute historical analysis of gender, race, sexuality, and class, Donoghue reconstructs an oft-forgotten England — one of “slammerkins” (a word for both a loose dress and a loose woman), fossified social class structures, and a complicated attitude towards sex. Our heroine, Mary, is raped over the cost of a red ribbon. This rape leads to a pregnancy, which leads to her getting thrown out of her home, which leads to her eventual gang-rape at the hands of a group of soldiers. She’s saved from death through exposure by the efforts of Doll Higgins, a whore who takes her in. Eventually, Mary is forced to leave London for Monmouth, a small town near the border of Wales. She tries to escape her past, but feels she is forever marked. Since her abortion in London, she hasn’t had her period. The soldiers gave her the pox (syphilis or gonorrhea). Most importantly, she’s realized that social respectability doesn’t always mean freedom. While she wants to stay in Monmouth, she’s caught in a terrible bind. Slammerkin aren’t beholden to men in the same way wives and maids are… but at the same time, slammerkin live hard and often die young. Mary is only 15 — but Doll, the friend who saved her life, died at 21.
Throughout the novel, Donoghue investigates notions of freedom, family, and social worth. As Mary speeds towards her fate at the goal, you realize that she’s been forced to create together a family, one that simultaneously saves her and destroys her, one where her social rank mean she’ll always be beholden to someone. She’s pushed into prostitution, and, socially, cannot be allowed to escape that taint — it’s a world where female virtue only exists when in conflict with female uncleanliness. Her attempts to mold her own future, to create a life where a seamstress’ daughter can wear what she likes, push her towards the goal as surely as any act ally-time buggery. At the same time, it’s these illicit acts that gained her the financial freedom to live as she liked; selling her body gave her access to funds and liberty, a liberty many of the other female characters were never able to experience.
This was a compelling read — rarely does fiction seriously take on issues of class from such a disenfranchised perspective. Rarely are the results as poignant, or as vividly realized.