Emma Donoghue’s Novel Slammerkin Re-Imagines The Trope of the Fallen Woman

Hello, everyone! I’ve been feeling very much in a “red” mood since the beginning of November, which is why I couldn’t resist picking up a vibrant red copy of Slammerkin. Written by Emma Donoghue, author of other fantastic novels like Room and The Wonder, Slammerkin highlight’s Donoghue’s particular ability to write compelling stories about imperfect women striving to survive in worlds that do everything possible to snuff them out.

Amazon.com: Slammerkin: 9781844087341: Donoghue, Emma: Books

Synopsis: Born into poverty in 1748, Mary Saunders spends her childhood longing for a speck of color to lighten up the dreary reality of the London slums. When an unintended encounter with a ribbon-peddler leaves Mary pregnant, her harsh mother kicks her out into the street, forcing 13-year-old Mary to take up prostitution. As Mary sheds her innocence and learns to navigate an entirely new set of rules, she discovers that in the restrictive world of 18th century England, liberty is the most expensive commodity of all.

My thoughts: The concept of “illicit” sex features somewhat prominently in 18th and 19th century literature, with authors like John Cleland, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell writing about female characters who broke the “code” of acceptable female behavior by engaging in pre-marital sex or choosing a life of sex-work. The trope of the “fallen woman” is another recurring element of these works, focusing on female characters who choose a life of “sin” in order to obtain luxury, often committing another mortal sin by having sex with a man of a higher order and attempting to “transcend [their] class,” and ending with the fallen woman either dying or facing dire consequences for her immorality.

Slammerkin is a novel born with these conventions in mind, but armed with modern sensibilities and a cynical sense of humor that laughs at the absurdity of 18th century morality, while also emphasizing its vicious consequences. Mary Saunders is the prototypical “fallen woman,” a girl who trades a kiss for a red ribbon, but ends up being raped, impregnated, and thrown out on the street. It’s her desire for the finer things in life, and her refusal to work in a job suitable for her station, that pushes her off the edge of respectability into immorality, and would have earned her the role of evil temptress in a George Eliot novel. In the hands of Emma Donoghue, however, Mary Saunders is given the grace to be a person deserving of empathy. One of the main themes in Slammerkin is that it shouldn’t be a crime to be born poor and female. In Mary’s world, a woman’s ambition and her desire to have autonomy over her own body are akin to treason against the state.

One of the most appealing facets of Slammerkin is its ability to paint Mary as a sympathetic character without erasing her flaws. As a protagonist, Mary is no “hooker with a heart of gold,” but a woman whose experiences have hardened her against the world, resulting in a character who often lashes out at others, looks down on those she considers beneath her, and makes impulsive and self-destructive decisions. As a reader, I found her inability to accept the reality of her situation frustrating to witness, as even when it seems like Mary has found a way to escape her past, she manages to dig herself an even deeper hole. At the same time, I also appreciated Donoghue’s ability as an author to write a female character who is more than her likability. Mary is not an easy character to like, but that’s not the point. Through Slammerkin, we see how the harsh socio-economic and cultural realities of 18th century London forced people like Mary into lives of drudgery and subservience, and how any attempt to break out of that mold could result in disastrous repercussions.

In addition to exploring the consequences of illicit female sexuality in 18th century England, Slammerkin also explores how the rigid social classes of the time created atmospheres of unbearable oppression. Mary’s time as a maid-of-all-work in the second half of the book reveals the hidden tension of the supposedly idyllic “domestic sphere.” Skilled with a needle, Mary quickly captures the affection of Mrs. Jones, her employer, and her quick rise through the house causes resentment between her and the other servants of the household. Even as Mary grows closer to Mrs. Jones, she can never forget that they are separated by class, a chasm that becomes so great as to consume them both. Donoghue pays special attention to the hypocrisy of this class system, showing how the upper class’ pretense of benevolence was actually expressed through restriction of the lower class’ autonomy. Mrs. Jones, for instance, beats Mary for not showing proper obeisance to a wealthy lady in one scene, and in another scene, assures her Black maid Abi that she’s not a slave, but refuses to give her wages. Mrs. Jones attempts to soothe Mary by claiming that they are both servants in their own way, with Mary being a servant to Mrs. Jones, and Mrs. Jones being a servant to her husband, but Mary won’t accept her apology, saying that one servant gets whipped, while the other does the whipping. It’s Mary’s realization that class will always be the deciding factor in her life that pushes her into her final downward spiral. The tragedy of class division is the prevailing theme in Slammerkin, with all of the horrors of Mary’s life merely symptoms of the 18th century’s fatal flaw.

Even though Slammerkin focuses on dark subject material, the story is lightened by Donoghue’s clever and cynical prose. For all her flaws, Mary is a riot to read, as snarky and self-possessed as the heroine of any 21st century novel should be. Donoghue also makes a point to paint a vivid portrait of 18th century London, immersing the reader in the landscape of the past, while still maintaining a contemporary feel and tone. Donoghue pulls real historical people into her fictional novel, peppering the story with the stories of infamous women of yore. Like Mary Saunders, these women are remembered only for the sensational crimes they committed, and for their eventual executions. Donoghue gives all these women a chance to be seen in a new light, not as women who fell from the heights of society, but as women that were pushed.

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