A stitch in time
SLAMMERKIN, by Emma Donoghue (Virago), 422 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Mary Saunders, the heroine of Slammerkin, has a whiff of Nat Turner about her, and the scent of Becky Sharp, too.
Born in the mid-1700s into an intensely class-stratified London, England, she lives with her cold stepfather and equally unfeeling mother, and then at age 13 gets thrown out of the house and into prostitution. In debt and danger, she flees London for the small town that was her mother's birthplace. There, she lies her way into service at the home of a woman who makes dresses, some called slammerkins, and many of which Mary covets.
Life in the city streets had given her some independence. In Monmouth Mary loathes her loss of liberty as much as she despises the shop patrons. The seasons crawl by, evoked by author Donoghue in richly vivid descriptions of the changing landscape. You feel the shudder of winter's terrible chill and smell the muck of spring.
It turns out that Mary has a gift for sewing, and some ambition, too. She even imagines that she'll change her life. Can she exploit her wily intelligence? Or will her growing rage explode into violence and derail her?
Donoghue answers the question in expertly crafted prose, capturing Mary's thinking as she walks the streets of London or sinks her fingers into sumptuous fabrics.
Try sounding like you're living in the mid-18th century and not get bogged down. Donoghue keeps the story rolling without resorting to tired tricks -- there are no anachronisms here, no nudge-nudge, wink-wink sops to contemporary ideas that might distance us from the tale.
This is a rock-solid novel of class conflict and desire.
Irish-born, Canada-based Donoghue reads tomorrow (Friday, September 22) at the Toronto Women's Bookstore. (See listings this page.)