Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue


If you want to read about the gritty side of life in 18th century England, then Slammerkin is an eye opener.

As a diehard fan of Jane Austen, it’s easy for me to believe life in Georgian/Regency England was as sweet as a rosebud. From my teenage years to my mid-20s I romanticised about this world. I loved the courtship rituals of this period, especially the balls, the gallantry and marriage proposals from dashing gentlemen on one bended knee. I couldn’t get enough of the clothes and accessories such as empire waistlines, corsets, lace, tulle and ribbons. At times I wistfully declared that I was born several centuries too late.

But Mary’s struggles in Slammerkin quickly took the sparkle off these fanciful thoughts. Mary’s stomach often growls from hunger, and she makes do with one dull pinafore, laundering it so many times that the fabric is all but colourless. There are plenty of beautiful gowns in Slammerkin, but none of them are within Mary’s reach.

My family arrived in Australia, from Saigon with only a few suitcases of clothing. Throughout my childhood we hovered on the fringes of poverty. Dad worked in a factory and Mum sewed at home, making as little as 50 cents per garment. I never had to worry about food, but we had little money to spare for toys or other luxuries. Such was my limited experience of Melbourne, beyond our ethnic enclave, that I thought Sizzler, an all-you-can-eat franchise, was a fancy restaurant. Luckily for me, study, hard work and a government-subsidised university degree changed my life. Mary’s ambition, talent and labours in 18th century England brought her little joy, and even less security. In 18th century England, being born into poverty was not just a disadvantage. It was a sentence. Mary’s story is not a light, cheery read. But it’s a much-needed dose of reality, counterbalancing my fantasy about the past.


The following blurb for Slammerkin, is taken from Book Depository:

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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