Emma Donoghue
Harcourt Inc., 2000

A 1763 murder briefly reported in Welsh and English history of a servant named Mary Saunders who butchered her employer, Mrs. Jones, was Donoghue’s inspiration for Slammerkin. By taking the barest tidbits of a story’s end, she weaved backwards to write a plausible biography of the sixteen-year-old who was reported to have murdered because she yearned for “fine clothes.” Matching that desire with the use of the outdated word slammerkin, which means a loose dress or loose woman, Donoghue built a story.

Perhaps knowing Mary is a real person from history adds a sliver more interest to the description of Saunders’s life. The story opens in dangerous, lively London in 1760 when she is thirteen. Mary is privileged that she attends school due to her father’s wish for his daughter before he died. Otherwise, her circumstances could be that of a Dickens urchin, born way before mothering was considered noble.

Donoghue has given a well-written history to a girl who garnered a few inches of newspaper type. Her life is the story of the mass of unnamed, unknown women who gave their lives as seamstresses until they were blind, household help, streetwalkers, or wet nurses and nannies. The often stereotypical characters Mary encountered were described well enough to still be human, interesting and move Mary through her desperate three years of trying to make it on her own. A favorite scene was when a prudish wet nurse widow named Nance Ash held on to a moment of victory over Mary by feeling, “Such a gorgeous sensation, might and mercy mixed.” Having felt that “gorgeous sensation,” I found it only demeaning and cruel, and do not want to experience it again, but I appreciate Donoghue’s ability to express it.

History was on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, America was a good place to send criminals, and the slave trade was beginning to further mix the world’s people. The time in history is energetic and uncontrolled, though most people survived by following the rules of the established gentry. And how they did rationalize it. A half page conversation between Mary and her employer finely asserts wageless employment is not slavery; but is instead, family. Donoghue’s flashes of trivia deepen the story, giving a gritty reality today’s period romance novels sugarcoat. Instead it was a peek back in time to when lit candles after dark gave social status, public executions were occasion to picnic, and churches had Poor Holes where the dead were thrown and not covered until the hole was full.





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