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Slammerkin

by Emma Donoghue

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,328854,926 (3.68)192
Set in London and Monmouth in the late 1700s, this is an extraordinary novel about Mary Saunders, the young daughter of a poor seamstress. Mary hungers greedily for fine clothes and ribbons, as people of her class do for food and warmth. It's a hunger that lures her into prostitution at the age of thirteen. Mary is thrown out by her distraught mother when she gets pregnant and almost dies on the dangerous streets of London. Her saviour is Doll - a prostitute. Mary roams London freely with Doll, selling her body to all manner of 'cullies', dressed whorishly in colourful, gaudy dresses with a painted red smile. Faced with bad debts and threats upon her life she eventually flees to Monmouth, her mother's hometown, where she attempts to start a new life as a maid in Mrs Jones's house. But Mary soon discovers that she can't escape her past and just how dearly people like her pay for yearnings not fitting to their class in society...… (more)
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» See also 192 mentions

English (83)  Dutch (1)  All languages (84)
Showing 1-5 of 83 (next | show all)
A riveting historical novel that focuses on the limitations of gender and class in 18th century England, and also gives a lot of information about clothing and fashion during that time. A slammerkin is a loosely fitting dress, apparently often worn by London prostitutes.
The book is loosely based on a historical figure, Mary Saunders, a teenage servant. Donaghue gives her a rich internal life, and an appealingly flawed character.
I enjoyed Donoghue's writhing, and the plot was interesting and allowed the exploration of different parts of life in the 18th century. Some of the plot was a bit unbelievable, which I have noticed to be a flaw in Donoghue's works in the past. ( )
  banjo123 | Jul 19, 2020 |
I love Donoghue's writing style here, and am always excited when I find historical fiction that I can love instead of being annoyed by. I keep dithering between four and five stars, but I think the change from one POV in the first part to many in the second knocked off that final star. It took me a while to get back into the book and I found that I didn't really care for so many perspectives. That said, I really enjoyed this and am excited to read more of Donoghue's work. ( )
  Tara_Calaby | Jun 22, 2020 |
A stunning and mesmerizing work of imaginative reconstruction, Emma Donoghue’s novel Slammerkin (in 18th-century England the word referred to both “loose dress” and “loose woman”) tells the harrowing tale of a real historical figure named Mary Saunders, who was born into working-class destitution in 1740s London. Donoghue’s London, where Mary grows up, is a filthy, brutal, morally bankrupt place where poverty and privilege exist side by side, where the wealthy flaunt their finery and the poor scramble to survive by any means possible. Mary has no wish to follow her mother’s example and spend her days as a seamstress, condemned to a life of drudgery, working her fingers to the bone for peanuts. But she does develop a taste for fine clothes and garish colours, and at age 13 succumbs to temptation and barters her virginity on the street in exchange for a red ribbon. Turned out of home when she becomes pregnant, Mary finds herself with nothing of value but her own body, which, under the tutelage of a prostitute named Doll Higgins, she learns to exploit in order to make a living and dress herself up in style. Mary admires and seeks to emulate Doll’s world-weary cynicism and resourcefulness, but most of all she appreciates Doll’s independent spirit: her refusal to take orders from anyone. But eventually Mary tires of the demands of her “cullies” as well as the dangers and infections that street life exposes her to, and, in an attempt to straighten herself out, checks into a charity hospital. A few months later, clean finally, but still with no prospects, and recalling stories her mother had passed on to her about her own early life, Mary leaves London and follows the trail to Monmouth. Here she wangles her way with lies and pleading into the Jones household, old friends of her mother’s, taking a position as maid and, eventually, all-purpose assistant and confidant of her mistress, Mrs. Jones, a professional dressmaker. But Mary, never satisfied with her lot, driven by envy and misguided confidence that she was meant for finer things, and horrified at the prospect of ending up married to a dolt, falls back into her old ways, raising money to finance her escape back to London by turning tricks behind a local tavern. Exposed, humiliated, and facing expulsion, Mary resorts to violence, and her downfall is complete. Donoghue uses a scant historical record as a basis for a psychologically rich and gripping tale of a tragically self-aware young woman, doomed from the start, filled with jealousy, bitterness and, eventually, consumed by rage at an unjust world that crushes her dreams and thwarts her every attempt to raise herself up. We do not love Mary—some readers will not even like her. She can be sentimental, and in extreme situations she is moved to tears. But she is also dishonest, devious, scornful, covetous and self-pitying. But let there be no mistake: in Emma Donoghue’s dramatic rendition of her brief and sordid life, Mary Saunders is as engaging a protagonist as you’re likely to find in a work of fiction. And as we get deeper into her story, she becomes someone whose fate matters greatly. ( )
  icolford | Apr 5, 2020 |
A surprisingly good read for a book that has been malingering on my shelf for the past several years. I thought it was a bodice ripper, and it never seemed to make it to the top of my TBR pile. Now that I've finally gotten around to it I'm disappointed I haven't read it sooner. The writing style is beautiful, with a few turns of a phrase that I want to jot down to reference again later. Our heroine is an anti-hero, pushed into making bad choices by a lack of options. Who she evolves into as a person isn't likeable, and you can see the train wreck of her life coming at her with all the speed and velocity only adolescent bad judgement can muster. It's harsh and its crude, but for some that's just the defining moments of their life. And sometimes, even as a reader, we just have to accept that people don't always learn from their mistakes. ( )
  birthsister | Jan 27, 2020 |
This book is based on a real person, Mary Saunders. There is apparently very little information about her, so this novel is the author's attempt to create a life for her. Emma Donaghue did an excellent job. I found myself really hoping Mary would rise above her beginnings and do well for herself.
I did find this book very difficult to put down. This entire story is so tragic. I'll not give any of it away. ( )
  a1stitcher | Jun 22, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 83 (next | show all)
The novel is structured in such a way that it exerts a considerable grip, the tension slowly, painfully building, yet the writing is also evocative and Donoghue has a particularly good eye for costume and the way cloths confer status, the fine stitching, the liquid warmth of velvet and the stays that sculpt a woman's body as if it were putty, as if it were a sinful thing that needed to be fixed.
 
But both the writing and the story find their rhythm soon enough, and they're almost impossible to resist.
 
Irresistible, and deeply satisfying. Donoghue has surpassed herself.
added by Nickelini | editKirkus (Jun 1, 2001)
 
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Epigraph
Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither.

The Book of Job, 1:21
Slammerkin, noun, eighteenth century, of unknown origin.

1. A loose gown. 2. A loose woman.
Dedication
This book is for my agent and tireless ally, Caroline Davidson.
First words
There once was a cobbler called Saunders who died for eleven days.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Set in London and Monmouth in the late 1700s, this is an extraordinary novel about Mary Saunders, the young daughter of a poor seamstress. Mary hungers greedily for fine clothes and ribbons, as people of her class do for food and warmth. It's a hunger that lures her into prostitution at the age of thirteen. Mary is thrown out by her distraught mother when she gets pregnant and almost dies on the dangerous streets of London. Her saviour is Doll - a prostitute. Mary roams London freely with Doll, selling her body to all manner of 'cullies', dressed whorishly in colourful, gaudy dresses with a painted red smile. Faced with bad debts and threats upon her life she eventually flees to Monmouth, her mother's hometown, where she attempts to start a new life as a maid in Mrs Jones's house. But Mary soon discovers that she can't escape her past and just how dearly people like her pay for yearnings not fitting to their class in society...

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