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3.9 58
by Emma Donoghue

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Slammerkin: A loose gown; a loose woman.

Born to rough cloth in Hogarth's London, but longing for silk, Mary Saunders's eye for a shiny red ribbon leads her to prostitution at a young age. A dangerous misstep sends her fleeing to Monmouth, and the position of household seamstress, the ordinary life of an ordinary girl with no expectations. But


Slammerkin: A loose gown; a loose woman.

Born to rough cloth in Hogarth's London, but longing for silk, Mary Saunders's eye for a shiny red ribbon leads her to prostitution at a young age. A dangerous misstep sends her fleeing to Monmouth, and the position of household seamstress, the ordinary life of an ordinary girl with no expectations. But Mary has known freedom, and having never known love, it is freedom that motivates her. Mary asks herself if the prostitute who hires out her body is more or less free than the "honest woman" locked into marriage, or the servant who runs a household not her own? And is either as free as a man? Ultimately, Mary remains true only to the three rules she learned on the streets: Never give up your liberty. Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


"Superb . . . A novel of real force, filled with unforgettable sights . . . A profoundly entertaining and intelligent book."--Elle
"[A] colorful romp of a novel . . . Impossible to resist. Donoghue paints a spirited picture. . . . Fabulous."--The New York Times Book Review
"Intelligent and mesmerizing."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"This book rocks from the title on. A spectacular job."--USA Today
"What a great read this book is! Donoghue is a real writer, and she's elevated her racy story close to art."--The Washington Post Book World
"[A] transporting read."--Mademoiselle

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Mary Saunders, a lower-class London schoolgirl, was born into rough cloth but hungered for lace and the trappings of a higher station than her family would ever know. In 18th-century England, Mary's shrewd instincts will get her only so far, and she despairs of the plans made for her to carve out a trade as a seamstress or a maid. Unwilling to bend to such a destiny, Mary strikes out on a painful, fateful journey all her own. Inspired by the obscure historical figure Mary Saunders, Slammerkin is a provocative, graphic tale and a rich feast of an historical novel. Author Emma Donoghue probes the gap between a young girl's quest for freedom and a better life and the shackles that society imposes on her. "Never give up your liberty," Mary's closest friend Doll, instructs. But as Mary's journey takes her from the seedy streets of London, where she is forced to toil as a prostitute, to a small town in Wales, where she works as a dressmaker's assistant, she learns just how difficult it is to follow her friend's advice.

The term "slammerkin" refers to both a loose gown and a loose woman, and this intelligent work is filled with rich images of dressmaking, detailing the painfully stiff stays the wearers endured and the fabrics and trims that served as features and as demarcations between the social classes. Another piece of wisdom Doll offered Mary was, "Clothes make the woman," but, as Mary Saunders discovers herself, the desire for fine clothes makes her a woman she could never have imagined. (Summer 2001 Selection)

Donoghue has produced an absorbing, moving, and intelligent work of fiction . . . an exhilarating dialogue with the literature of the period and an imaginative attempt to capture the climate of change in the 1760s.
Times Literary Supplement
Donoghue has produced an absorbing, moving, and intelligent work of fiction . . . an exhilarating dialogue with the literature of the period and an imaginative attempt to capture the climate of change in the 1760s.
Kay Chubbuck
Absorbing and entertaining...a roller-coaster ride through the 18th century. Buckle up.
Baltimore Sun
Elle Magazine
A powerful and unforgiving tale of London in the 1760s...Slammerkin is a novel of real force.
The Financial Times
Finding a language that inhabits but is in no way weighted down by its time, Donoghue has made of an 'obscure and brutal story' a compelling novel . . . and a brilliant historical variant on the 'girl about town.'
The Times Literary
"Donoghue has produced an absorbing, moving, and intelligent work of fiction . . . an exhilarating dialogue with the literature of the period and an imaginative attempt to capture the climate of change in the 1760s."
Possessing a quick mind and an indomitable taste for what money can buy, Mary Saunders, on the street at age 15, takes up prostitution in 18th-century London, along with many other poor young girls of similar background. The title of the book refers to the name of a loose dress and also a loose woman. After a brief stay in the Magdalen Hospital, more to improve her health than to repent her sins, Mary goes into "service" at the home of Thomas and Jane Jones in the Marches. They were childhood friends of Mary's mother and have no knowledge of her reversal of fortunes. Even though Mary demonstrates expert skill as an embroiderer in their shop, her love of money and fine clothes tempts her once again. This grim piece of history, based in part on the life of an actual historical figure, provides a glimpse of the lower classes who inhabit the "Seven Dials" and the sordid district around St. Giles and whose descendants a century later will appear in the pages of the novels of Charles Dickens. Although this colorful, well-written story may seem depressing, from the outset clues foreshadow the probable outcome, and the denouement satisfies the moral justice required both by events and the time period. Because of the graphic sex scenes, the language, and the horror that ultimately unfolds, this novel isn't recommended for most teen readers, although without doubt mature readers among them would relish the story. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2001, Harcourt, Harvest, 352p., , Lewiston, ME
Library Journal
In 18th-century England, a young girl's longing for finer things--especially finer clothes--leads to murder. Based on a true story, this book has become an international best seller. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter one
Ribbon Red

The ribbon had been bright scarlet when Mary Saunders first laid eyes on it, back in London. 1760: she was twelve years old. The fat strip of satin was the exact colour of the poppies that grew in Lambs Conduit Fields at the back of Holborn, where the archers practised. It was threaded into the silver hair of a girl Mary used to look out for at the Seven Dials.

Mary's mother-known as Mrs Susan Digot ever since she'd remarried, a coalman this time-had told her daughter often enough not to pass through the Seven Dials on her way back from Charity School.
A pond for the worst scum in London, she called the Dials. But the warnings drew the girl like a hot fire on a winter's night.

Besides, she was never in a hurry to get home. If it was still light when Mary reached the family's two-room cellar on Charing Cross Road, she knew what she'd see through the low scuffed window: her mother shipwrecked in a sea of cheap linen, scaly fingers clinging to the needle, hemming and cross-stitching innumerable quilted squares while the new baby wailed in his basket. There was never anywhere to sit or stand that wasn't in the way or in the light. It would be Mary's job to untie the baby's foul swaddlings, and not say a word of complaint because, after all, he was a boy, the family's most precious thing. William Digot-the Digot man, as she mentally called her stepfather-wouldn't get home from work for hours yet. It would be up to Mary to stand in the pump queue on Long Acre till nightfall for two buckets of water so he could wash his face white before he slept.

Was it any wonder, then, that she preferred to dawdle away the last of the afternoon at the Dials, where seven streets thrust away in seven different directions, and there were stalls heaped with silks, and live carp butting in barrels, and gulls cackling overhead, and the peddler with his coats lined with laces and ribbons of colours Mary could taste on her tongue: yellow like fresh butter, ink black, and the blue of fire? Where boys half her size smoked long pipes and spat black on the cobbles, and sparrows bickered over fragments of piecrust? Where Mary couldn't hear her own breath over the thump of feet and the clatter of carts and the church bells, postmen's bells, fiddles and tambourines, and the rival bawls of vendors and mongers of lavender and watercress and curds-and-whey and all the things there were in the world? What d'ye lack, what d'ye lack?

And girls, always two or three girls at each of the seven sharp corners of the Dials, their cheeks bleached, their mouths dark as cherries. Mary was no fool; she knew them for harlots. They looked right through her, and she expected no more. What did they care about a lanky child in a grey buttoned smock she was fast outgrowing, with all her damp black hair hidden in a cap? Except for the girl with the glossy scarlet ribbon dangling from her bun, and a scar that cut through the chalky mask of her cheek-she used to give Mary the odd smile with the corner of her crooked mouth. If it hadn't been for the jagged mark from eye to jaw, that girl would have been the most gorgeous creature Mary had ever seen. Her skirts were sometimes emerald, sometimes strawberry, sometimes violet, all swollen up as if with air; her breasts spilled over the top of her stays like milk foaming in a pan. Her piled-high hair was powdered silver, and the red ribbon ran through it like a streak of blood.

Mary knew that harlots were the lowest of the low. Some of them looked happy but that was only for barefaced show. "A girl that loses her virtue loses everything," her mother remarked one day, standing sideways in the doorway as two girls flounced by arm in arm, their vast pink skirts swinging like bells. "Everything, Mary, d'you hear? If you don't keep yourself clean you'll never get a husband."

Also they were damned. It was in one of those rhymes Mary had to learn at School.
The harlot, drunkard, thief and liar,
All shall burn in eternal fire.
On cold nights under her frayed blanket she liked to imagine the heat of it, toasting her palms: eternal fire! She thought of all the shades a flame could turn.

Mary owned nothing with a colour in it, and consequently was troubled by cravings. Her favourite way to spend any spare half hour was to stroll along Piccadilly, under the vast wooden signs that swung from their chains; the best was the goldbeater's one in the form of a gigantic gilded arm and hammer. She stopped at each great bow of a shop window and pressed her face to the cold glass. How fiercely the lamps shone, even in daylight; how trimly and brightly the hats and gloves and shoes were laid out, offering themselves to her eyes. Cloths of silver and ivory and gold were stacked high as a man's head; the colours made her mouth water. She never risked going inside one of those shops-she knew they'd chase her out-but no one could stop her looking.

Her own smock was the dun of pebbles-in order that the Patrons of the School would know the girls were humble and obedient, the Superintendent said. The same went for the caps and buttoned capes that had to be left at School with the books at the end of every day, so parents wouldn't pawn them. Once Mary tried to smuggle The Kings and Queens of England home for the night to Charing Cross Road, so she could read it under the covers by the streetlight that leaked into the basement, but she was caught going out the School door with the book under her arm and caned till red lines striped her palms. Not that this stopped her, it only made her more resourceful. The next time the teacher forgot to count the books at the end of the day, Mary tucked A Child's Book of Martyrs between her thighs and walked out with stiff small steps, as if in pain. She never brought that book back to school at all. Her favourite illustration was of the saint getting seared on a gigantic griddle.

As well as her daily dress Mary had a Sunday one-though the Digots only went to communion at St-Martin-in-the-Fields twice a year-but it had long since faded to beige. The bread the family lived on was gritty with the chalk the baker used to whiten it; the cheese was pallid and sweaty from being watered down. If the Digots had meat, the odd week when Mary's mother finished a big batch of quilting on time, it was the faint brown of sawdust.

Not that they were poor, exactly. Mary Saunders and her mother and the man she was meant to call Father had a pair of shoes each, and if baby Billy didn't learn to walk too fast, he would have a pair too, by the time he needed them. Poor was another state altogether, Mary knew. Poor was when bits of your bare body hung through holes in your clothes. Poor was a pinch of tea brewed over and over for weeks till it was the colour of water. Falling down in the street. That smell of metal on the breath of that boy at School who collapsed during Prayers. "Blessed are the meek," the Superintendent was intoning at the time, and she stopped for a moment, displeased at the interruption, then continued, "for they shall inherit the earth." But that boy hadn't inherited anything, Mary decided. All she'd done was fainted again the next morning, and never come back to School again.

Yes, Mary knew she had much to be thankful for, from the leather soles under her feet, to the bread in her mouth, to the fact that she went to School at all. Dull as it was, it was better than mopping floors in a tavern at eight years old, like the girl in the cellar beside theirs. There weren't many girls who were still at School when they turned thirteen; most parents would call it a waste of education. But it had been Cob Saunders' fondest whim that his daughter should learn what he never had-reading, writing and casting account-and as a matter of respect, his widow saw to that the girl never missed School. Yes, Mary was grateful for what she'd got; she didn't need her mother's sharp reminders. "We get by, don't we?" Susan Digot would say in answer to any complaints, pointing her long callused finger at her daughter. "We make ends meet, thank the Maker."

When Mary was very young she had heard God referred to as the Almighty Master, and ever since then she'd tended to confuse him with the man her mother quilted for. The delivery boy would arrive with a sack of linen pieces every week or so, and dump it at Susan Digot's feet: "The Master says to get this lot done by Thursday or there'll be hell to pay, and no more stains or he'll dock you tuppence on the shilling." So in the girl's mind the Mighty Master owned all the things and people of the earth, and at any time you could be called to account for what you had done with them.

Copyright ©2000 by Emma Donoghue 2000, published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Born in Ireland, Emma Donoghue spent many years in England and now lives in Canada. She is the author of Slammerkin as well as two other novels, a collection of short stories, and a collection of fairy tales. Her novels have been translated into eight languages.

Brief Biography

London, England and Ontario, Canada
Date of Birth:
October 24, 1969
Place of Birth:
Dublin, Ireland
B.A. in English and French, University College Dublin, 1990; Ph.D. in English, University of Cambridge, 1998

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Slammerkin 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
AmusesHerself More than 1 year ago
I stayed with this book because it covers interesting aspects of history not usually found at the center of books, clothes and fashion... and prostitution. There could have been much more emotional development of the main characters; without it, I kept finding myself saying, "That doesn't make sense...", or not caring about them as much as I like to, but it was enjoyable enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book until the last few chapters. It is difficult to get to know a character so well, when you like so little about her. But the challenge makes the book even more interesting. I kept wanting to know what would happen next.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is just way more detailed and eventful than what the 'back of the book' says. I gave 3 stars instead of more because the ending seemed to be weak.
jj76 More than 1 year ago
If you like historical fiction, this book is for you. The author takes an event from the past and composes a story around it. Her idea of what could have been going on in the mind of Mary Saunders makes for delicious reading. This book is: nuanced - it's interesting to read more than once which I rarely do. dramatic - the main character, Mary Saunders, voice comes through vividly. You can feel what it's like to BE Mary Saunders. A great escape from the everyday! This has to be a major component of a good book, at least in my little world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
OK - I'll level with you - this book is not for the faint of heart. It can be very raunchy - but it is completely in context and only adds to the story. I even liked it! for the critics of the raunch, if you don't want to read about the REAL life of a whore, don't pick up a book about a whore! I am so sick of the chick-lit type stuff that keeps coming out - and this was a refreshing change. It kept you going from beginning to end. Even the end is different - it doesn't end like every other book out there! I loved this book. I have lent it out it to many friends, and every one of them has high praises for it, too. If you like something not in the grain of the common book on the shelves these days - read this book. It's a very easy, quick read, too. I highly recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoy historical fiction and I enjoyed this book. The plot was engrossing and well developed. However, I found it hard to empathize and relate to Mary. There was something about her that was hard to love. A serious read. Somewhat indecent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
archetype67 More than 1 year ago
In <i>Slammerkin</i> Emma Donoghue took a brief, sparse news article of a woman, Mary Saunders in the mid 1700's and turned it into a tale that transports us to the grime and grit of 18th Century London, and to the small town life of Monmouth Wales.   Mary's hard life gets harder when she makes a bad choice for a pretty item she wants and she finds herself making her way as a street prostitute, learning to survive with the help of another prostitute, Dot.  Donoghue somehow manages to show how they accept their fate and find some level of contentment, while still showing how dehumanizing such a life was.  Mary and Dot aren't particularly likable, yet I found myself engaged in their world and their fate, and as the story progressed I found myself hoping that somehow, Mary would learn to make better choices. But sometimes in life, people don't learn and their ambitions -- in this case Mary's desire for pretty clothes - get the better of them.  As the book and Mary spiral to the devastation she seems drawn to, Donoghue is able to show the ramifications of choice both on the family and friends who take Mary in when she leaves London (after another poor choice) and ends up in Monmouth, and as well as the more individual level.   Donoghue populates <i>Slammerkin,</i> with a great cast of memorable characters - each with a distinct voice and story - that compare and contrast with Mary.  Characters like Dot, a lively, principled prostitute; Abi, the slave who, because of Mary, begins to think of freedom;  the Joneses, an ambitious couple who can't see beyond their provincial beliefs; Daffy, who is as ambitious as Mary but more cautious; and Mrs. Ash, a governess, a righteous and bitter woman, who dislikes Mary from the moment she arrives.  There are parallels that weave between the characters that reinforce the themes the Donoghue builds throughout the novel. Besides the characters, the world Donoghue transports us to is wonderfully painted, and again is built of contrasts.  Donoghue is noted for her historical research and her ability to capture particular times and places of the more 'common folk' rather than the glitz and glamor of a period.  I have little interest in clothing and fashion, yet I found myself fully drawn into Mary's love of it.   <i>Slammerkin</i> is not a romantic story or vast historical saga, but rather an intimate look at the grit and grime of a life that was a fight against the odds from the start.  While not a cheery novel, it is engaging on many levels.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Story of a prostitute in London middle 1800's. I read this when it we first released and it is a five star historical novel of fiction. Still have it on my real ville book shelf. I recommend it. Draws you in all the way to the unexpected end. Verry well wrote by a esteemed novelist.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Truly, for me it was a wonderful read! I so enjoyed the details of the period in old England but then I got caught up in the story. Very interesting read!   I highly recommend it if you like this type of authentic story!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting book that I couldnt put down
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a fan of Emma Donoghue, I thought this would be similar to Sealed Letter. Not at all. Very heavy. 14 year old Mary is banished from her home and is taken in by a prositute. As a way to survive, she adopts the lifestyle. Very good, but very sad.
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