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.”