Story of an ‘ordinary girl’

Mary Saunders grew up dirt poor in London of the mid-1700s. In the midst of her poverty, she longs for nice things—particularly fine clothes. Her strong desire for a piece of red ribbon leads her into prostitution. After a brief, rough period alone, she meets and is taken in by an experienced prostitute, Doll. But when Doll gets sick, with the harsh winter coming, she encourages Mary to check herself into the Magdalen Hospital, a sort of workhouse/halfway house for penitent women. Mary checks herself in, not because she is penitent, but to have a place to go for the winter. There she learns to sew. She can’t stand the confinement and gets herself discharged early, but has to flee London to escape a gruesome debt collector.

She heads to Monmouth on a whim because it is where her mother came from. There, Mary gets a job with Mrs Jones, an old friend of her mother’s, cleaning her house and working in her dress shop. For a while, Mary lives the life of a normal young girl. But her obsession with nice clothes leads her back to prostitution on the sly—and even worse behavior. There are, however, three rules she knows she mustn’t ever forget: Never give up your liberty. Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told. Emma Donoghue’s daring, sensually charged prose casts a new sheen on the squalor and glamour of eighteenth-century England. Accurate, masterfully written, and infused with themes that still bedevil us oday, ‘Slammerkin’ is historical fiction for all readers. (‘Slammerkin,’ Emma Donoghue, Harvest Books, 408 pages)— Agencies