In preparation for the 2016-17 Grimsby Author series, I am reading the works of Emma Donoghue. She is a Canadian author (born in Ireland) best known for the novel (and subsequent movie) Room. Slammerkin is a complete different style of writing – where Room was written from the perspective of a young boy, trapped in a small room with his abducted mother; Slammerkin is historical fiction sharing the story of a young girl in the late 1700s who becomes involved with prostitution and murder in her quest for beautiful clothing. Slammerkin is Donaghue’s third novel and was written as she completed her PhD in 18th century fiction. It was a best seller and won the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction.
The story has been described as gritty and it certainly is a grim depiction of the options for young girls in that era. Girls in Mary’s class went into the service (maids, cooks, household labour), did fine work like sewing or dressmaking and got married, often ending up serving their own husbands. Mary was as tough as nails and thought that she could live a different life. She dreamed of fineries, beautiful gowns and expensive fabrics that were well above her station in life. She was immature and her yearning for this unattainable lifestyle led to a sad situation where she was living in poor conditions and visiting many men despite risks of violence and disease. It was interesting to learn that slammerkin means a loose gown – or a loose woman!
Mary benefited from the benevolence and charity of others – from the experienced prostitute who mentored her, to the members of the home where she lived when she fled from London but the lure of independence lured her back into her less than desirable lifestyle.
If you are looking for a happier story, Slammerkin might not be a suggestion as it was bleak tale of circumstance, poverty and filth yet it keeps the reader’s attention and the fiction is based on a historical crime. While I appreciate the engaging writing and detailed research, I cringed to read about the lifestyle along with the lack of hygiene of this time period.
This novel makes me appreciate the opportunity to grow up in Canada! I never have to worry about a lack of opportunities for my children and know that women have choice, freedom and independence! I am looking looking forward to reading Donaghue’s newest book, The Wonder and hearing her share her experience as a writer in Grimsby at the end of September.