My first introduction to Emma Donoghue was her gem of a novel Room. A moving, mesmorising book, Room is the story of four-year-old Jack who is born in captivity, a product of his mother’s imprisonment and continued rape by an unnamed kidnapper.
Room is heartbreaking and majestic, Donoghue captures the bewildered four-year old’s voice so beautifully that Jack is as vivid a fictional character as you’ll find.
But I discovered that Room was a departure for Donoghue whose usual territory is the world of corsets, cobbles and carriages with a hefty dollop of historical scandal. Slammerkin pre-dates Room by nine years and is set in 18th century London and the then English town of Monmouth. It’s the sorry story of Mary Saunders, a girl born a few steps from the gutter on Charing Cross Road who soon rolls right into after being thrown out of her mother’s house.
Mary’s future never looked bright, but once homeless, it’s positively desolate. But then she meets Doll, a St Giles’ prostitute – straight out of the book of tarts with hearts – who literally picks her up off the street and teaches her survival in the crudest sense. But even she can’t protect Mary from the vagaries of London life and Mary is forced to flee to her mother’s hometown of Monmouth where she is taken in by her mum’s old friend Jane Jones and her husband Thomas. Jane is a dressmaker and Mary, who as a lady of the night in London knew the worth of fine clothes, soon develops a taste for beautiful fabrics and wonderfully crafted threads. Life is quiet in Welsh borders for a while, but Mary longs to be free in a world where lowly born women never were. Her lust for a life of freedom – and a beautiful clothes – ends in tragedy.
Slammerkin should be a rip-roaring read, it’s got all the elements of a gripping historical yarn. Based on a real life Mary Saunders, it’s got violence, lust, slurry strewn streets and dastardly men. But the story got sort of stuck in the mud of Charing Cross Road and while always threatening to take off, never seemed to come to life. My judgement probably isn’t fair – although I’ve now only come to realise – as I’m not a great historical fiction fan. Novels set in the past written in contemporary times always seem so po-faced, while fiction of the time – Dickens, Austen et al – are shot through with wit.
Slammerkin is no different. It’s relentlessly gloomy and dispiriting and strangely uneffecting despite the brutality and hardship. This isn’t polite historical fiction, Donaghue doesn’t flinch from the realities of working class life in Britain in pre-Welfare State days. There are some horrific scenes, particularly in Mary’s early days on the mean streets of 1760s London that made me recoil, but left me unmoved. Mary Saunders certainly isn’t unsympathetic, but she’s rather dull. I don’t buy the idea that you have to like characters in novels to enjoy a book, but a fictional companion has got to be good company and Mary frequently bored me, she seemed so lifeless for one who had led such an extraordinary life.
Donaghue is clearly a fine writer with an ear for dialogue and a way of conquering up vivid scenes with little fuss, but it’s her corset-less world that I’ll be sticking with.
by Suzanne Elliott