What a stark contrast to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I’m not sure if this is because a woman wrote this novel, or if it’s because she wrote it over 60 years later. The handling of rough trade/prostitution and women in this novel is miles beyond the poor treatment and overt misogyny of Miller’s novel. Donoghue also empowers her female characters so much so that they seem to control their own destiny, and definitely their own choices regardless of whether they choose the easy road or not, on various occasions.
Set in 17th century London, Slammerkin is the story of Mary Saunders and her short-lived life. It is about passion/desire/lust for beautiful things and a better existence. An incredibly bright and intelligent child, Mary at the age of 14 does something incredibly stupid and short-minded. She has sex with a ribbon peddler for a ribbon and winds up pregnant. Disowned by her family and raped by a battalion of soldiers, Doll, the very same prostitute which caught Mary’s imagination with the red ribbon, rescues her from the ditch and certain death. The two are inseparable until Mary comes down with a deathly cough and Doll forces her to go to a charity hospital. While in the hospital Mary learns needlework, embroidery and stitchery, ironically the same trade/skills her mother wanted to teach her.
Once she leaves the charity hospital Mary, fleeing an argument and potential death, heads to the only place she can think to escape to, her mother’s home town of Monmouth. Once here she begins a new life as a maidservant to her mother’s best friend and appears to have given up prostitution until she once again realizes that the life of a servant is nowhere as glamorous or as lucrative as the life of a prostitute. Although she has gained skills which would see her set for life, she returns to prostitution in this small village. There is a twist to the story, and I hadn’t read the back so it took me by surprise and I’ll leave it at that.
Donoghue wrote this novel ten years before Room and it is every bit as beautiful and lyrical. There is something about Irish authors, that when they’re truly in love with their art or their subject the words just flow effortlessly into tapestries so rich and lush that you can’t stop reading them. In comparison to Room, this novel is a different world, but you can see Donoghue’s commitment to meticulous detail and research throughout the novel, but especially so in the final notes section.
Recommendation: READ IT, READ IT NOW! (And Room too!)
“Her problem was, she didn’t believe in anywhere but London. Even having to name the city she’d left behind was new to her. When she’d lived there, it was simply where the world was, where life took place. London was the page on which she’d been written from the start; she didn’t know who she was if she wasn’t there.” (131)