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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156007474
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/28/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 503,283
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About 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.


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

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.

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Slammerkin 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 81 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.
waxlight on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I started reading Emma Donoghue after her book 'Room' started popping up everywhere. I didnt realize that she had quite the back catalog of books.The author seems to do a good job in staying true to the timeperiod she portrayed in this novel. Not being a historian, she at least faked it enough for me. The book also managed to surprise me with a few of the twists, and did a good job of following the psychological changes, and an individual's desires through the course of changing situations.And now, I want a 'Slammerkin' dress, myself, with all it's connotations ;)
RidgewayGirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Slammerkin, like Sex and the City, is less about sex than it is about clothes, and the desire to have something pretty to wear. Mary is a girl living with her family in a two-room flat near Charing Cross in 18th century London when she is kicked out because of the allure of a bright red ribbon. Her path is never easy, but she remembers the three rules laid down by a friend; Never give up your liberty, clothes make the woman and clothes are the greatest lie ever told.Mary's story is never boring. She may not have any material advantages or anyone to look out for her, but she's resilient and resourceful, quick and tough enough to survive anything. She's learned that compassion and pity are weaknesses to be both feared and exploited. Slammerkin reminded me of Fingersmith. It lacks Fingersmith's twists and turns, but both vividly evoke an England where only the strong survive.
scarpettajunkie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Slammerkin takes the phrase "clothes make the man" to a whole new level. Mary Saunders is obsessed with clothes to the point that her life choices are based on them. There is pride, snobbery, poverty, hypocrisy, the battle of the sexes and the battle of the classes all touched upon in this book that will leave its brand on your memory and put your brain into overdrive thinking of fate, fairness, and the difference our choices make to others. One simple action, the craving and purchase of a ribbon changed everything. If you want to see how, you are going to have to read the book.
beckylynn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Solid story through the entire novel, the ending is not what I expected however, appropriate. The language is graphic, but I think that's one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much. Take a chance and slip back into 1760 England.
corglacier7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's interesting how Donoghue takes a tidbit of history: a servant girl hanged for murder of her mistress in Monmouth in the 1760's, and spins an entire story around it of prostitution, servitude and slavery, modernization vs tradition, the conflicts of urban vs rural life, class conflicts, and hefty doses of "the way it was". The bones of the story are engaging and make for a good tale.However, I had a few issues with the book. Mary is understandably hardened by her experiences and geared towards "freedom" at any cost, though she never seems to realize that utter reliance on men to buy her body makes her just as much a slave as when she's a servant girl. Her sheer callousness and self-centered nature unfortunately get a bit grating by the end. Not that I expect my protagonists to be shining beacons of virtue, but being able to understand their position and sympathize with them helps, and Mary falls a bit short on that score. She seems to resume prostitution, after having left it once, out of a desire for pretty things, rather than the sheer driving desperation of survival.It's a minor point as well, but while I'm in favor of realism in depicting the often dirty conditions of the past, Donoghue rejects most of that in favor of smuttier "dirt": she seems to revel a little too much in talking about body fluids.The early London chapters and the last chapter in particular are very good; the Monmouth chapters unfortunately sag the story a bit. But all in all, "Slammerkin" is a decent read, and despite its faults, I find it a better read than the ponderous, pretentious, and rather unrealistic "The Crimson Petal and the White".
PitcherBooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
So how did a tawdry historical crime novel set in the 18th century win any awards? Or was even a contender? After reading this bleak, grim, relentlessly depressing book about a greedy, thoughtless (did I mention unappealing) dolt, I just can't understand the glowing reviews. Given more than one opportunity to pull herself out of the cesspool, our girl dives back in every time. The author did not create a sympathetic character in Mary. Little insight and little common sense. Some cunning and definite evidence of sociopathy. Not only does she ruin her life but the twit manages to destroy every good thing or person who touches her life along the way. (Moral of the story? No good deed shall go unpunished in you're involved with Mary.) I must live on a whole 'nother planet. I've read better books. And I expect Ireland has better books to offer too. If you come across this book in your travels, just shoot it and put it out of its misery.
christy5778 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book provides a first hand look at what life was like for poor born ladies forced into prostitution. This story is set in England in the 18th century.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Men aren't cast in a good light in Slammerkin; no good guys here. The story had an authentic feel and Donoghue tells a great story. I recommend this one.
Began on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set in the mid 1700's England this is a very well written story of a relatively poor London girl who is turned out of her home and now must make her way however best she can. Falling into a life of prostitution she soon falls behind in rent and, to escape punishment by the landlady's thugs, decides to leave London for the small hamlet of Monmouth her birthplace. She takes a position as seamstress but tires of this day to day routine and stumbles back into her old ways. Things deteriorate further and in the end the family in which she holds service drastically changes. The characters are well developed, the settings authentic and the plot absolutely believable. A captivating story loosely based on a real character of the time. I was sorry that it ended.
Citizenjoyce on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
There's a little quote toward the end of Slammerkin, Spring slid into Mary's nostrils; the fields were spread with dung. There is some beauty in the teen aged Mary's life, but it's always spread with dung, and to show the arbitrary nature of life, Emma Donoghue starts the book with the calendar riots in 1752 London in which Mary's father laid down his life for the sake of eleven stolen days. It makes no sense now, it made no sense then, it's just the way life is. Prostitutes, wives, slaves, the poor, the rich all bow down to the way life is. A wet nurse quotes the bible regarding the punishment of harlots: The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee till thou perish...And the Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness and astonishment of heart. Mary, our heroine compares the business of being a prostitute with that of a wet nurse and wonders why a woman selling the use of one part of her body is considered to be doing a wholesome thing while one selling a different part is evil. Emma Donoghue does her research here, there's everything from poverty in 18th century London, to the limited options for employment for women of the time to cheating landlords and cruel pimps, to fashion, fashion and more fashion, to the enslavement of Africans in England, to of course most of the punishments mentioned above, to Christian "charity", British law, Welsh superstitions and methods of imprisonment and executions. This is a wonderful book that I recommend to anyone who likes historical fiction, who wants to know about women in history or prostitution particularly.
sblock on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
To be honest, I still haven't decided how I feel about this book. The descriptions of London in the 1700s were vivid and compelling, and Donoghue is a superb writer. But there wasn't a single person in the story I cared about. Although I wanted to sympathize with Mary, who was thrown out of her house at age 14 and forced to sell her body to stay alive, she was so conniving, manipulative and materialistic that it was impossible to connect with her. The Joneses were kind to Mary, but treated her as a second-class citizen (they also owned a slave). I'm baffled by reviews that describe this book as "bawdy" and "funny." The sex was degrading and I the poverty was relentless. The ending seemed abrupt and forced. Still, I'm recommending this to a friend's book club, because I think it provides lots of fodder for discussion.
Marliesd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting, but somewhat disturbing and a little racy!
BellaFoxx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The character "Doll" gives us the definition of a 'slammerkin': a loose dress for a loose woman. Then she goes on to say, 'That's why they call us slammerkins.'Slammerkin the author tells us, is very loosely based on the real girl Mary Saunders, the known facts of her life are few and disputed. I don't have the exact words since I had to return the book to the library. Mary Saunders was put out on the street by her mother at the age of 14, she turned to the only profession that could support a girl of that age in that time period, prostitution. In that life style she found a freedom of sorts and three rules to live by: Never give up your liberty. Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told. Prostitution was and still is a dangerous profession, when her life is in danger she flees London and ends up in Monmouth, where her parents were from and obtains the position of household seamstress with an old friend of her mother. It is a respectable profession for a woman, but she finds she has lost her freedom and realizes the only way to raise enough money to escape her new life is to become a prostitute again.I enjoyed this book for its historical accuracy and honest portrayal of the plight of women in this time period. Some of the decisions Mary made were bad, but when you realize she was a child having to survive on her own, and her advisors are others who also have been living on their own since childhood you can understand why she made the choices she did. One thing I found particularly interesting was when Mary went to a 'hospital' to survive the winter, the girls were divided into the 'misses', girls like her, and the 'ruined', girls who had been 'taken advantage of' by men. It shows the attitude toward women, even a girl who was raped was at fault, in a sense.
hobbitprincess on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I will grant you that this book is well written and well researched and probably true to life. Still, I found it depressing almost beyond words, thus the lower rating. The main character is Mary, who through a variety of circumstances ends up a prostitute in 18th century London. About halfway through the book, I thought there would be redemption, and I read the remainder of the book expecting just that. It didn't happen. The ending is disturbing, although historically accurate. I kept wanting some change in Mary, some hint that she could be a different person, but that never played out. The book does flow well, and the writing style is good.
bhowell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ms. Donoghue always writes a great book and this historical murder thriller is a winner.
Jaie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Like the Mary Saunders of this book I too was tempted by the red ribbon slippery and sensual across the cover of this book. I read it in about a day and couldn't put it down. I did feel there were several weak parts to the book, although where, I can't say, just that the book could have been more firm with it's historical background. But for what the author had to go on about Mary, and the fact that this is her first major novel this is a damn good book. Not your typical romance novel, this is a dark look at the 18th century's underbelly in London.Worth a read, worth picking it up a few times.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As much as I expected to enjoy this novel, it took me forever to finish it. I found the characters to be bordering on unbelievable, and not presented realistically enough for me to truly feel for them. While the story interested me, and the plot moved along quickly enough, I needed more so that I could actually Care about what was going on. It was an interesting read, but for me, it fell a bit flat.
PandorasBox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mary Saunders naive materialistic side leads her into a life of prostitution and ultimately murder.Great book. Fascinating character, very hard to put down.
Ebeth_King on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although the book was well written and researched, I found the characters flat. I had no empathy for any of them. I could appreciate the depth and despair of poverty during that time, but I felt the desicions Mary Saunders made weren't logical - they were made with greed. I kept waiting for her to grow, have an epiphany, but nothing. You want a good book that deals with prositution in old London - read The Crimson Petal and the White.