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)