By Emma Donoghue.
336 pages
New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2000.
ISBN # 0-965-019742

Comments of Bob Corbett
April 2002

Pre-teen Mary Saunders lives a survival existence with her family in London in the mid-1740s. Each day is a struggle for survival and only the most basic necessities ever enter the Saunderís home. But Mary is enamored of a piece of red ribbon which a local peddler has for sale and she tries to hold back a tiny coin here and there to get the money for the ribbon. When she thinks she has enough she goes to the peddler to buy it, but she is a bit short. She is desperate and tries to bargain him down. He wonít budge on price, but suggests to Mary that she can trade a kiss for the ribbon. She readily agrees and the kiss becomes a rape and Mary ends up pregnant.

Her unforgiving family just kicks her out. She made her choice and now she must live it. Mary is on the streets of Londonís slums in a cold winter, not having any idea what to do. She is again raped by several soldiers and left to freeze on the street, but sheís picked up by Doll Higgins, only in her early 20s, but a streetwise whore, who takes Mary in and teaches her the trade. She has a natural abortion and regains her strength.

Mary doesnít mind the work at all. Doll is an independent whore, working on her own and not with a pimp nor in a whorehouse, both of which she has tried and rejected. She is her own woman and celebrates her existence. Mary comes to like it as well and spends the next year with Doll.

The story of their lives on the street, eking out an existence, having to use a significant part of their earnings to buy clothes to keep the business running, is a simply fascinating story itself. But author Donoghue moves beyond it to social commentary. There are few avenues for any woman to change her station in life, and Maryís station, a typical one for the masses, was particularly unattractive. Her options were to imitate her mother, get married, produce a lot of children, many of whom would die in their earliest years, for a man who himself was a victim of birth and the family would live in abject poverty for the rest of their lives. In addition to submitting to the poverty itself the 18th century woman would be subjugated to her husband in a near slave-like situation. There were virtually no avenues out.

Prostitution was one such out and Mary was learning a great deal, becoming as hardened at age 14 as Doll was in her early 20s. She turned off to passion, never even imagining that sex could be anything other than a commodity one sold on the street.

The second winter was a bitter one and street walking whores were in trouble. The cully, (what today is frequently called a john), the customer, wasnít willing to brave the cold to have sex standing up in an alley in that winter. Additionally Mary had a deep cold which Doll recognized could end up killing her. With Dollís encouragement Mary enters a religious house for the rehabilitation of whores, and like most other inmates, was planning to simply sit out the winter where it was warmer and with food. Mary also hoped to shake her threatening cold.

She does recover her health and lasts several months in the home, but eventually leaves to get back on the street, but Doll has disappeared and Mary runs foul of her landlady who uses one of the meanest pimps in London as her enforcer. Mary is forced to flee London for her life.

Not knowing what to do or where to go she returns to her motherís village which was then in England, but is now part of Wales. She writes a letter supposedly from her dying mother to a seamstress friend of her motherís in the village. Mary tries to live a respectable life, but again feels the desperate oppression of the hopelessness of her situation and the lack of freedom and opportunity.

A second character of great interest is Abi, a black slave from Africa via Barbados. Mary is astonished to discover that Abi gets no wages at all and, while not living in the same sort of slavery as slaves of the Caribbean, she is nonetheless owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Maryís employers. Mary challenges Abi to demand wages and to even run away, both of which Abi eventually does.

Mary realizes she is caught in an absolute dead end in this tiny village, but she canít go back to London and is weighed down by the hopelessness of her position. She dreams of being a lady, having respectability, property and lovely clothes. She decides the only way to gather any money to make a break and somehow move forward is to go back to prostitution. But how is one going to do this in a tiny village like sheís in, a village of no more than a dozen streets.

Before returning to prostitution Mary comes close to falling in love for the first time in her life. A young man, Daffy, who works for the Joneses, treats her with great respect and care and tenderness. She keeps expecting him to demand sex which he doesnít. She is surprised that she is having feelings she never thought possible. But Daffy ruins it by asking her to marry him. All of a sudden she is face to face with what that life would be like, and she turns away from him with a rather cruel coldness and toward the prostitution which she believes might get her out of this hopeless mess of a life sheís in.

The end of the novel is harsh and best left untold here. The entire plot of the novel, however, was spun from a very few lines in a newspaper story which tells of the end of this story. Emma Donoghue fills in about 335 pages of the novels 336 in her created story which situates the brief newspaper account.

For me one of the most fascinating plot twists is the fact that Mary Saunders begins her entire life as a prostitute over a tiny piece of red ribbon which only costs a few cents. It is certainly likely she might have drifted that was for other reasons later on. Nonetheless, Donoghue's choice of getting her into prostitution on the basis of this tiny ribbon was just fascinating to me.

At the opening of the novel Donoghue gives us the title word: "Slammerkin, noun, eighteenth century of unknown origin. 1. A loose gown. 2. A loose woman." The slammerkin is how the prostitutes of London refer to their dress, but Mary is surprised when she becomes a seamstress and very respectable women are asking to have a slammerkin made for them. She finds this irony quite amusing.

This is a wonderful story told with skill and historical accuracy. Donoghue goes far beyond the story to challenge us philosophically with the notions of freedom, oppression and possibilities in life. She makes a powerful case for the nearly impossible situation of women of the under classes in 18th century England. I thoroughly enjoyed this read.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett