For want of a red satin ribbon, Mary Saunders was hanged for murder at the age of sixteen in 1764. “In her sixteen years she’d shot along the shortest route she could find between life and death, as the crow flew” (p. 376*). Emma Donoghue’s astonishing novel, Slammerkin, is based on the sketchy historical record of the real Mary Saunders. Just as she did with Frog Music, Donoghue paints between the lines the historical documents to create a realistic portrait of a character’s life.
Mary never fit in with her family in Charing Cross Road. Her mother admonishes her to learn a trade. Her step-father mostly ignores her. She lives a cold, hungry, un-beautiful life with them and it galls her. She wants something more, but she can’t ever really articulate it. One day, she makes a deal with a peddler to swap a kiss for a red ribbon—but he takes much more than a kiss from her. And the ribbon turned out to be brown. When word gets out that Mary is no longer “pure,” her parents throw her out of their cellar apartment. She spends an appalling night on the streets before she is rescued by the dissolute Doll Higgins. Doll teaches her to sell herself as an independent “Miss” on the London streets.
Doll has many lessons for Mary. Doll repeats that a girl should never give up her liberty, but Doll comforts herself daily with the infamous blue ruin gin. It’s a hard life. Mary is occasionally robbed and beaten. When she gets sick, Doll encourages her to go to a Magdalen Hospital for penitents—even though Mary is far from remorseful about her way of life. After she gets out, Mary finds that she just can’t go back to life as a “Miss.” Worse, she has no money to pay Doll’s bill after Doll freezes to death and has to flee for her life. She goes to Monmouth, her parents’ hometown in the British Marches. At the age of fifteen, Mary tries to go straight.
In Monmouth, Mary gets a job as a maid and dressmaker’s assistant. Before long she finds that she has just as much trouble fitting in with the Jones family as she does with her own family. I didn’t expect that she would be able to be happy in Monmouth. I kept waiting for her to flee to London. But she stays for months. She stays until, one night, she snaps.
Slammerkin is not an easy read. Everywhere our protagonist turns, there are barriers. She’s expected to be so many things: chaste, obedient, industrious. But there’s so little reward for living that way. It’s little wonder that Mary takes to the streets if it lets her be her own mistress. Mary is all wrong. She’s her own antagonist most of the time. Because the novel opens with Mary in Monmouth jail, you know that things will not go well for her. Still, I had a little hope that there would be a miracle.
If you read Slammerkin, you will not like Mary Saunders. She’s sharp and harbors grudges. She is selfish and avaricious. And yet, Donoghue makes her fascinating. Mary is a train wreck you can’t turn away from.
* Quote from the 2000 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paperback edition.