- Paperback: 408 pages
- Publisher: Harcourt; 1 edition (May 1, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0156007479
- ISBN-13: 978-0156007474
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.1 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (289 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #494,533 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Slammerkin Paperback – May 1, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
Donoghue takes scraps of the intriguing true story of Mary Saunders, a servant girl who murdered her mistress in 1763, and fashions from them an intelligent and mesmerizing historical novel. Born to a mother who sews for pennies and a father who died in jail, 14-year-old Mary's hardened existence in London brings to mind the lives of Dickens's child characters. Mary has an eye for fine things and ambitions beyond her social station, and her desire for a shiny red ribbon leads her to sell the only thing she owns: her body. Turned out by her mother, Mary is taken in by a local prostitute, Doll Higgins; they live together in Rat's Castle in the seedy section of town. Doll teaches Mary the tricks of her trade and gives her all the gaudy dresses Mary once coveted. For a year, the term slammerkin meaning a loose gown or a loose woman becomes all too familiar to Mary, until she checks into a charity hospital and attempts to straighten out. Missing the "liberty" of her former life, she leaves the hospital only to encounter more trouble back on the streets. Fleeing to the country village of Monmouth, her parents' hometown, Mary finds Mrs. Jones, an old friend of her mother's, and obtains a maid's position in her household, but Mary can't shake her dark ambitions: she re-enters the flesh trade, bringing disaster upon herself. Readers may feel both sympathetic to and angry with Mary, who questions whether hers is the lot of all women, but whose anesthetized spirit leads to her rash action. Donoghue's characterizations are excellent, and her brutal imagery and attention to language capture the spirit of the time with vital precision. Agent, Caroline Davidson. (June)Forecast: The provocative jacket will catch readers' attention, but attentive handselling, perhaps helped by the author tour, will be required to distinguish this worthy historical novel from similar titles.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
"Slammerkin," an 18th-century term meaning a loose gown or loose woman, is a fitting title for Irish writer Donoghue's (Hood) third novel. Mary Saunders's mother scratches out a meager living as a seamstress in 1760s London, but Mary longs for a more luxurious life with fine ribbons and clothes. At 13, she sneers at her mother's suggestion that she take up the needle, then makes a fateful mistake that leads her into prostitution. On the street, the young woman indulges her fine tastes and lives an independent life. When illness forces her to seek help, she vows to reform her lifestyle. Mary flees to a tiny hamlet where she finds work as a maid and seamstress. In her new life, she discovers the comforts of a home and family. But she questions whether "honest" women are any freer than prostitutes and is unable to forget her former life and her need for autonomy a need that leads to violence. This eloquent and engrossing novel, rich in historical detail and based on an actual murder, raises numerous issues about a woman's station in society during this period. An ideal choice for book groups; recommended for all public and academic libraries. Karen T. Bilton, Cedar Mill Community Lib., Portland, OR
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
In most of the historical fiction books I've read, the beautiful real life heroine rises from impoverished or modest beginnings to become the concubine or even the wife of noble man. Nell Gwyn was one of those who went from the gutter to a king's bed and whose children were written about in history books. But the life of a typical ambitious young woman between the 16th -- 19th centuries looked nothing like the lives of the exceptional women glorified in popular books. Most ambitious women of those times had it very hard. Some were beaten down till they had no spirit left in them. Others, who refused to accept their difficult lot in life, might have ended up like Mary Saunders --swinging from the end of a rope. What makes Slammerkin an incredible novel and an extremely hard book to put down is that it is about the real truth. It is about the hard and limited lives of women in the 18th century. It about the squalor and smelliness and blood and cruelty of that time, and it is about how people actually thought and felt. Some people who have reviewed this book found it difficult to relate to Mary Saunders. I'm not surprised at that. The modern reader has empathy, compassion for others, imagination, and usually some hope and optimism. We are capable of projecting our thoughts outside our circumstances even when they are limited. We can't possibly know what it is like to grow up in Mary's time, when love was fragile and fleeting, most bellies were empty and most people were riddled with disease. But Donoghue puts her readers right into that and then she gives us insight into how a woman of that time might think and act -- particularly if she desperately wanted something more than what she had. What would you enjoy if you lived in a time where going to a public hanging was considered good entertainment? Who would you be? What if the only color you ever saw came from the tawdry apparel of prostitutes in the street? What if your only joy came from the bottom of a gin bottle?
Mary isn't a repulsive person. She's very human, very determined and very smart. When it comes to survival, she's just about an expert. She's constantly alive to the possibilities and doing whatever she can to make them work for her. The trouble with her life is that there are few possibilities and none of these are quite what she thinks she needs or wants. What I most often felt for Mary was compassion. I knew that if I had lived her life I might have been very much like her. I saw some of my own weaknesses -- naivete, fear, passion, inability to project into the future -- and I knew that I might have gone just as crazy, been just as foolish. I might have thrown my whole life away in desperation, just as she did. She's ignorant and we can see miles ahead even when she can't. That makes it a difficult book to read. You want to reach into the story and create a happy ending for her. But for every person who succeeded in her circumstances there were dozens -- hundreds -- who failed and died.
I take this novel as a memorial to all the people of preceding centuries who were dealt a losing hand, who tried with all their might to change their lives, and failed.
This is a two-part novel: In London, a young girl with unrealistic expectations makes a series of mistakes that compound themselves to turn into a very bad situation. She moves to Monmouth, a small city near Wales, to make a new start but continues to make bad decisions in her misguided attempt to get ahead. Not surprisingly, it ends poorly for all the independent women. Throughout the novel, clothing serves as the guiding metaphor for the story as well as the motivation for much of the action.
Donoghue is clearly a feminist and a Marxist (what choice does Mary have, being a woman in this period) but she makes her points without preaching. There are few men in the novel but they are not the empty villains that would have been easy to portray. The pawn-like women, held back by multiple forces, are forced to stick-up for each other, band together in poor circumstances, and quickly become resourceful to survive. Donoghue is a powerful writer who manages to keep her eye on both the small characteristics that motivate the women and the big picture that swirls around the city with its physical and political structures.
"Slammerkin" (an old British word for a loose gown or loose woman) is by turns the hilarious and horrifying story of 14-year-old Mary Saunders, a poor girl in 1760s London determined to "rise above her station" by making money and wearing fine gowns. Seduced by a creepy peddler in exchange for a ribbon, Mary finds herself pregnant and thrown into a life of prostitution.
The book charts Mary's many misadventures (warning: some plot points ahead). She learns the tricks of the trade from a whore with a heart of gold named Doll. The sex is pretty explicit but mostly brutal and grotesque. Mary gets the clap and does a stint in a home for reformed prostitutes. She angers London's most brutal pimp. She flees to the countryside and finds haven assisting a kind seamstress. But trouble keeps following Mary, and her own bad choices make matters worse. Mary is in many ways an anti-heroine whose behavior may exasperate and mystify readers. "Slammerkin" would be great for book club discussions. Its brisk writing, sharply drawn characters, plot surprises and sense of foreboding make it a real page-turner.
"Slammerkin" is a sensational story but with deeper dimensions and literary gloss. It's very thoughtful regarding class and gender oppression and explores the question of fate v. personal agency/responsibility, yet it's never preachy. It includes fascinating details about mid-18th century clothing, crime, travel, big city and small town life, slang and more. It's the most skillfully plotted and confidently executed novel I've read in years. It's also outrageously entertaining.
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