A tragic, lively tale of 18th century London
Being a historical fiction addict, I have always loved books about London, a city that has been around for over a thousand years, changing, morphing with the centuries. I remember reading a biography of Shakespeare that noted that travelers could smell London 20 miles away, a stench that consisted of burning refuse and open sewers.
Slammerkin is set in the 18th century, at a time when London not only smelled bad, it was a rich combination of slums, aristocratic wealth, moral corruption and artistic wonders. Donoghue’s novel captures this strange blend.
I remember when I first saw the engravings of William Hogarth, the artist and social critic, who depicted the poverty and depravity of this age. His engraving of “Gin Lane” is especially noteworthy since his subjects are the addicts, thieves and prostitutes. He also captured the public hangings at Tyburn and the plight of the insane at Bedlam, where wealthy Londoners would visit to watch the antics of the inmates. This is the world of Mary Saunders, the 15-year-old prostitute who is the protagonist of Slammerkin (which is both the name of a loose-fitting dress commonly worn by prostitutes, and the term applied to young prostitutes).
No doubt, this sounds like a bleak and cruel setting, but Slammerkin is filled with dark and bawdy humor. Mary’s father, Cob Saunders, had died in 1752 in a riot protesting the “loss of twelve days” when the government ruled that the day following Sept. 2 would be Sept. 14 in order that the calendar might coincide with “Church Time.” Cob felt that 11 days of work and earnings had been stolen from him and demanded their return.
Mary’s mother marries again, but to an ill-favored, unemployed fellow. At an early age, Mary begins to wander the streets. It is here that she sees a red ribbon that she covets and is lured to her downfall. She is raped, and when her pregnancy becomes apparent to her embittered mother, she is cast out and told to survive on the street. Here, she befriends a prostitute with a scarred face named Doll, who gives her shelter and teaches her how to survive. Mary proves to be an enthusiastic student.
Mary’s early life experiences are a kind of “serial trauma.” She is gang-raped and infected with gonorrhea, and undergoes a back-alley abortion.
However, she not only survives, she thrives. She learns that sexual acts are a short, brutal activity that are usually carried out while standing. She and Doll become fast friends and develop a routine: work the streets for several hours and then spend their income on wine and food. Then home to Doll’s room where they would drink and sleep late.
When Mary’s infections become serious, Doll takes her to the Magdalen Hospital that specialized in treating prostitutes. When Mary is “cured,” she returns to her old haunts only to find that Doll is dead and a local pimp has decided to “mark” Mary by slashing her face. Mary has no choice but to flee London with a sack of clothing. She gets on a coach bound for Monmouth, a city which is “neither in England or out of it.”
Remembering that her mother had a sister named Jane who married a tailor named Thomas Jones and and that the couple had moved to Monmouth, Mary finds her and tells her that her sister, Susan, has died and has sent Mary to her sister with a heartfelt plea that she will keep her (Mary has forged a death-bed letter). It is a convincing tale and Mary has become adept at deception. In a short time, she learns to manipulate every member of the Smith household — a talent she had perfected on the street in London.
Jane Jones is a seamstress and has acquired a reputation for her skill. The genteel residents in Monmouth flock to her shop. Again, Mary proves to be an adept student, learning to sew maddeningly complex patterns and her new, foster mother praises her.
However, it is here that she learns what makes for a successful life. It is clothing. Her customers are clothed in yards of expensive satin and lace and beneath all of that exquisite deception, they are frail, foolish and ugly. For this reason, Mary yearns for clothing that will give her power and status. Since she has no income, she decides to return to her old profession and begins to spend the few hours of freedom at the local tavern where there are always willing customers for a young slammerkin.
As Mary Saunders moves toward tragedy, she resembles another doomed protagonist: Thomas Hardy’s heroine in Tess of the D’ubervilles.
Like Tess, Mary is at the mercy of “deterministic forces” which shape her character, her life and finally, her fate. In all instances, such characters cannot change the forces, but simply react to them. Mary is helpless in the control of environment, society and heredity. Ironically, the single act that Mary performs in an attempt to gain her freedom — the murder of Jane Smith — is the act that destroys her.
There is a colorful cast of characters who are subject to the same forces, including a Dutch-speaking student/servant in the household who yearns to teach Mary to love ... an emotion she is incapable of experiencing due to the corrosive effects of her experience on the street. There is a Barbadian slave who has ended up in the Smith household and only learns of the concept of “freedom” from Mary. Now, she yearns for it. Jane’s one-legged husband is an especially frustrated vital life force as he struggles to deal with his wife’s infertility and his own lustful thoughts for Mary. Perhaps the most tragic is the wet nurse, Mrs. Ashe, who has exhausted her usefulness which has been to provide nourishment for Jane Smith’s newborn babies (11 of them and all dead within a month of birth). Where does she go now?
As it turns out, Slammerkin is based on a true story. Certainly, it has the pulse of life in it, and it abounds with memorable bits of folklore and superstition. I once especially moved by the passages in which Mary wandered Inch Street or Gin Lane, watching farmers pour fresh milk (dropping in a snail to make the milk froth) while fishermen sold living fish in barrels. She is curious and alive as she watches the slammerkins move through the crowd winking at the young men and whispering “I’m 14 and clean.” Oh, yes, this story is finally tragic, but it is also vitally alive with the sounds and smells of a bygone era.