Reflections: Slammerkin

A young girl, seduced by a ribbon and the viciousness of a ribbon seller, transforms from a working class, charity-school girl to a hardened street walker in eighteenth-century England in Emma Donaghue's Slammerkin. The young girl, impregnated by the ribbon peddlar and consequently banished the home of her mother, develops a contradictory personality. She leeches onto women she meets and seeks their affection and praise. At the same time, she is manifestly incapable of conquering her wholly economic sense of self interest. As a result, women are always the worse for their encounters with young Mary Saunders.

Donaghue's book mines the archives for source material, as befitting the work of a novelist who is also a historian. I resist the label of historical fiction for this novel, however, as that generic title has come to denote a very specific kind of dramatic, sweeping, and painstakingly detailed story. In some respects, Slammerkin boasts more liveliness and deftness than many a "historical fiction," yet gives a lot of historical texture to the narrative that makes it unlike a contemporary tale.

For all that makes it a good read, I will quarrel with Slammerkin all the same. The book relentlessly follows Mary from her first ruin to the standard conclusion of a woman so sullied. A story like this requries the reader's absolute commitment to the protagonist, even if we don't like her--and Mary is very hard to like. The book fails, I think, in its ambition for complexity for the character. Instead of feeling rich and rounded and consistent, the character instead feels contradictory and motorless. We don't know why she makes the decision she does--they are inexplicable, especially the climactic one. Mary's life begins to feel like a game that leaves the reader's emotional involvement on the sidelines.