Review: Slammerkin, by Emma Donohue

The interesting thing about working slowly through my TBR pile(s) is that quite often, I find that the reason I haven’t read the fiction books is that they are not quite my jam. It’s all these books that I want to be my jam — like Emma Donohue or CS Lewis’s sci-fi trilogy — but something inside me knows that they will not be. And that is why I have been putting them off. But no longer, friends! I have three huge stacks of TBR books, and I am going to READ THEM ALL BY GOD.

What Slammerkin is not: Steamy. At all. My coworker who gave it to me said it would be, and I think now she was basing that on the cover, rather than having read it. Which is fine. But I was just expecting it to be more like the sexy parts of Tipping the Velvet, and less like the sleazy street parts of Tipping the Velvet.

What Slammerkin is: A book about the damage inflicted by limitations on women’s choices in ye olden days (the 1700s). The protagonist, Mary, is a clever, independent-minded girl born to poor but honest parents. One part dreams of pretty clothing plus three parts RAPE lead her into a life in prostitution in London at the age of fourteen, which is (with gin) okayish until she has to skip town to save her own skin. Thereupon she goes to live in a small town in Wales, working as a servant and assistant to a seamstress who was once a friend of her mother’s. Though Mary perpetually dreams that her life will be more, there is never any way of putting her ideas into practice. And eventually she (spoilers) kills her mistress and gets hanged. The end.

I did not enjoy Slammerkin but writing this review has talked me into it a little. I’ll tell you why that is.

Mary is a basically ideal historical fiction heroine. She’s clever; she likes to read; she’s witty and smart-mouthed; she’s not intimidated by people and their bullshit; she wants her liberty, and she wants to have nice things. She even has a historically useful marketable skill, as she’s a gifted seamstress and is quick to pick up new embroidery patterns and methods. All this is par for the historical fiction heroines course.

But Mary, unlike many heroines of historical fiction, is not ExceptoGirl. Mary lives in a time where these characteristics are far more likely to get a girl killed than rich. Her desire to get more out of her life serves her ill, ill, ill. She’s raped and thrown out of her house, and because she has no money and can’t make money any other way, she turns to a life of prostitution. Maybe she could make her living as a seamstress, but we’ll never know because she cannot get together the capital to make it happen. A smart clever lower-middle-class woman in the 1700s who resents bending her will to people stupider than she is does not, realistically, attain great heights. She ends up in jail. That is how it really probably would go.

Given this, I found it interesting that the reader’s guide at the back of the book seemed to think Mary was such an extremely unlikeable character. The questions were all like, What were the things Mary did that you liked the least? When do you think was Mary’s doom sealed? On a scale of one to ten how much did you hate Mary? (I am exaggerating but not that much.) I kept thinking, yeah, but if she’d been able to get her shit together and open her own dressmaking shop — staying at this same level of ruthlessness, this same level of friendliness — there would have been no talk at all of unsympathetic characters. She’s totally sympathetic, but she’s just in a super shitty situation all the time. Her most relatable, modernest characteristics are often the ones that destroy her.

Basically, if you are ever feeling frustrated with the ExceptoGirls of literature, Slammerkin can be your antidote. You can read it and think about the wretched miserable life your most frustrating ExceptoGirl would actually have had. And either that will vindictively please you, or else (as in my case) you will be like, “You know what? ExceptoGirls are maybe not so bad after all. Maybe I do not want all that much realism in my historical fiction.”


Lies and the lying liars who tell them

Nope, not talking about the Senator from Minnesota (that’s weird, right? The lines between entertainment and politics are weirdly thin these days. Was it always thus?). I am talking about the books I have been reading lately, which have been full of people who lack integrity. Now I am ready to read about Betsy and Tacy, whose biggest deceptions involved reading Lady Audley’s Secret on the sly (I just wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That would be legitimately inappropriate for a twelve-year-old).

The Sealed Letter, Emma Donohue

After I read Room (yeah, yeah, I read it), I thought it might be fun to read more books by Emma Donohue, especially after I discovered that she wrote about Sapphic love in Victorian London. I got The Sealed Letter for under two dollars at Bongs & Noodles, and I thought it would be great because it’s about Sapphic love and a scandalous divorce case. In Victorian London! What could ever be bad about that?

The problem is this: Sarah Waters has already sort of nailed Sapphic love in Victorian London. You know how when you have one specific type of book connected in your head with one specific GOD of that type of book, and then you can’t read any other book of that type without comparing it to the GOD of that type of book. This is why I have a hard time with dual timeframe books, because of AS Byatt and Tom Stoppard nailing it so hard in Possession and Arcadia, respectively. Or why I didn’t enjoy The Hunger Games as much as I could have because Patrick Ness was out there writing Chaos Walking.

Anyway, The Sealed Letter is about a lying liar called Helen who tells lies to her friend Fido, and she does adulterous behaviors and eventually she and Fido both become imbroiled in a scandalous divorce case (that Robert Browning weighed in on in a letter to a friend – he thought the two women were carrying on Sapphic relations). There wasn’t nearly as much Sapphic love as I was anticipating. I just wanted to go read Fingersmith. Actually I still do. Fingersmith. Hearts.

What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt

So in the first half of this book, events occurred. One event, then another event, then another event. I couldn’t figure out what the point of all the events was! Subsequently, in the second half of this book, stuff was happening that all seemed related (that was a nice change), but it made me feel all weak and depressed and miserable. Like when Milo and Tock end up in the Doldrums in The Phantom Tollbooth but it’s really hard to leave because the Doldrums have gotten into their brains. That’s exactly what reading this book was like. Bother.

I will say, the descriptions of the art were really cool. I love ekphrasis as much as the next person who knows what it’s called (yeah. Latin class. USEFUL.), and it was so interesting to read all the different art things that the characters were making. I wish I could do art. Artists are cool. I’d refer you to this chick, except that the full awesomeness of her art doesn’t come out until you can see her pieces in real life, because they’re mixed media, and mixed media do not always photograph to best advantage.

Oh, yeah, what it was about: It was about these two families. They were all very smart and each family had a son, and there was art and hysteria and psychopathy. It sounds like it should have been great but it just didn’t work for me. Psychopaths are lying liars. You heard it here first. (Well, probably not.)

The Small Room, May Sarton

My favorite of these three books. Litlove and Jodie of Book Gazing both read this recently and spoke of it very persuasively. It’s about a woman called Lucy who goes to work as a professor at a private women’s college; there she discovers that the pet student of a particularly impressive and well-respected professor at the college has plagiarized an article on the Iliad. Questions of psychology and individualism and integrity go flying around, and the characters answer them differently than Dorothy Sayers does.

Speaking of Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night is one of my favorite books in all the land, and it has to be said that I am more in sympathy with her characters’ unflinching demand for integrity in academia, than with The Small Room‘s professors’ desires to worry about the human element (the girl they would be destroying if her plagiarism was revealed). The thing is, people have to be responsible for the research they do. If they plagiarize, you can’t trust them again, surely, and even if they do some really good research, how could you trust that what they were writing was original?

Well, these were the things I was thinking about. I also loved thinking about the questions Sarton raises about the appropriate amount of distance between teachers and students. When I was in high school there were, let us say, certain teachers who behaved inappropriately with students. When I was watching In Treatment (had to stop because the therapist was being shady), I asked my father how, as a therapist or a teacher or anything, you head off people getting too attached. He said you have to have the boundaries clear in your head, and communicate them clearly (this far and no farther). May Sarton does a great job of exploring where the lines get drawn, and why.

Yeah. Good times. I love reading about jobs I will never have.