Slammerkin – an earlier and accomplished book by the author of Room – is as concerned with the plight of women as her current book, deserving the The Man Booker Prize. While Room focuses on a woman who has her freedom snatched from her, Slammerkin touches on the vagaries of the life that some women are born into, their limited options, and the social status that dictates their destiny to a great degree. Room is of the present. Slammerkin is of the mean streets of 1760’s London.
Fourteen year old Mary Saunders lives with her mother (Susan Digot) and her step-father. Neither pay much attention to her. Mary reminds her mother of the husband who left her and she prefers to focus on her new life, and her new baby, with her new husband. Mary is an afterthought, expected to take up the needle and follow in her mother’s footsteps, make herself useful, pay her own way. But Mary has other ideas, she has ambitions of her own, visions of a better life for herself, better than she sees around her, especially her mother’s. And Mary is a smart girl, high-spirited. She sees and assesses these limited options. She feels she rightfully deserves more. Essentially her’s is the story of a girl who feels she deserves more out of life than life has to offer her. Such is the stuff of tragedy.
Her mind stretched and yawned like a tiger. She could read and write and make accounts better than any other girl in the school, what else could she learn here? The other girls her age had all left by now, one to become a washerwoman, another to be apprentice to a stockinger, and three more to hem piece-work. A girl that Mary had almost thought of as a friend was gone into service in Cornwall, which might as well be the end of the world. All these trades seemed to Mary to be wretched.
Other girls seemed unburdened by ambition; most folks seemed content with their lot. Ambition was an itch in Mary’s shoe, a maggot in her guts.
Her mother sees too that it’s time for her education to end (she’s a girl after all) and for her to pull her weight in the household. Mary feels hemmed in by the options available to her. She wants things, pretty things, finer things. When she sees a red ribbon which she has coveted, she has not the money for it. In an alley, she pays for it the only way she can, not exactly willingly, it just seems to happen, and before she knows it, she has the ribbon at the cost of her virginity. She feels no guilt though, no shame. Just a sense of having come to terms with the way the world works. She thought of herself as not a child anymore. The encounter has left her pregnant though, and for this she is tossed out of the house to fend for herself. Her mother coldly casts her out into the streets.
Gang raped and beaten by a pack of soldiers, she’s taken in by Doll, a young but world weary prostitute, with whom she lives and learns the trade. The pregnancy is taken care of (so late that it leaves her barren). All she has is the clap, and the friendship of Doll. When Doll determines that she needs a break (she’s losing weight and is possibly consumptive), she is accepted into The Magdalens, a house for fallen girls, where they can rest, be well fed, and get religion. After a sermon on choosing the right path, Mary admits to herself that she has never really actively chosen for herself.
She struggled to think of one day in more than fifteen years of life when instead of drifting along like a leaf on the river she’d simply grabbed what she wanted.
Unfortunately for Mary the choices she makes are never good ones. But it’s not black and white. She may be flawed, may be too materialistic, but she sees others and asks why not me? At a crossroads at the Magdalen, she opts to return to her former life, and finds Doll frozen to death in a back alley. Now she is truly alone in the world, more adrift than ever. Circumstances force her to leave London and she hatches a scheme to place herself in the household of her mother’s sister in Monmouth, in what is now Wales.
Although she has resolved to go straight, circumstances once again force her to yield to sell her body on the trip to Monmouth. Initially, she settles into the household and makes herself valuable, becoming a part of the family. But she makes herself an enemy in the process, the dried up wet-nurse of the household whom she replaces in the affections of the child of the house. This, Mrs. Ash cannot abide. But she makes a sort of a friend of a black servant, whom the house does not call a slave, but who is paid no wages either. Mary slowly opens up Abi’s eyes to her circumstances. But will Abi really gain her freedom? Or are there several forms of slavery, called by other name?
Mary has unique perspectives on freedom. On selling her body she intimates that what is the difference between her selling her lower half and the wet nurse selling her top half? And after her surrogate mother (and employer) Mrs. Jones is forced by her husband to whip her, after insulting (she couldn’t help herself) one of their biggest patrons, Mrs. Jones asks Mary:
‘Aren’t we all servants, one way or another, Mary?’
Mary responds, leaning closely to her employer
‘Maybe so, Madam. But some get whipped,’ she whispered with hot breath, ‘and some do the whipping.’
Mary’s fate seems sealed at this point, it’s only to play itself out.
Donoghue uses a recurring crow motif, starting with the area of London where Mary has found herself a working girl, a section call The Rookery. But especially in the latter half of the book, the motif recurs more and more frequently, with references that are sometimes ominous, sometimes poetic. Sometimes both at the same time. Mary’s noted the crows in the skies of Monmouth, and as things unravel, Donoghue refers to them more and more often. As Mary finally hatches a story to explain the money found hidden under her mattress, as she’s walking home on day
There was something black hanging from a fence by the bridge into town.. Mary’s eyes were weak and blurry still from the fever; she went up close. A dead crow, hung by its feet, its wings sagging wide as if it were flying downwards, about to hit the ground. It swayed in the wind.
Jailed for her crimes, and awaiting execution, Mary
…listened to the crows. One bird sounded harsh, like a crack in the sky. Five together were restless, circling. But more than ten, and the sounds smoothed out in the distance, until the twilight air began to shimmer and vibrate. Finally Mary was coming to understand why the crows cried so unceasingly: to prove they were here.
Mary wonders about her life. Her impact, if any. What will become of her memories? Will she be forgotten as if she never existed? And what of death itself? how does it come for her? Come for us all?
Mary knew now that death moved through the crowd wearing the face of an ordinary stranger, and tapped you on the shoulder with no warning. Better to run into his embrace.
Her last and final choice?
Mary had been born for this. In sixteen years she’d shot along the shortest route she could find between life and death, as the crow flew.
Donoghue’s book is a powerful tale of a fallen woman. What the “fall” is really about. Her end notes are illuminating. There was a real Mary Saunders, and Donoghue bases her story on the bare known facts, many of which are disputed. Then there is Abi, an Angolan slave who is transported to Barbados and then back to England. On the way to Barbados, her master makes a drawing of her genitals to display in a book he’s writing. This obviously made a strong impression on Donoghue, who confirms the veracity of the story in her Notes. With Slammerkin and with Room, it can’t be denied that Emma Donoghue is a femininst writer, but a writer foremost, and one of immense talent.