Sunday, 27 September 2015

Slammerkin - Emma Donahue

 Central London (Covent Garden and surrounds) 1760.  What d'you think it might have been like then if you were truly poor?  Mary Saunders lives with her mother, stepfather and a baby brother, in a basement room.  She is fortunate that her own father left enough money for her to have an education at a charity school.  Her stepfather is truly only interested in the brother - of course, it's his - and so Mary gets on with life as best she can.  Every day, on her way home from school, the whores are out for business at Seven Dials, and one of them, with a knife scar across one cheek and a grey powdered wig, has a scarlet ribbon in her hair.  Mary wants that ribbon, or one just like it, to colour her grey and dreadful life.  And the evening she looses half the money for the winkles she's sent out to buy for the family's supper, she meets the ribbon seller.  She has no money of her own but covets his wares, and when he offers a scarlet ribbon for a kiss, she's tempted into saying yes, and the kiss becomes a rape against the wall of an alleyway.  And in the daylight, the ribbon he gave is brown, not red.  And of course, the rape must result in a pregnancy. 

She's 14 years old and thrown out by her mother and stepfather.  To her rescue comes Dolly, the whore with the scarlet ribbon, who takes her in, cares for her, and teaches her the business, which she soon becomes very good at.  But she wants more than sex in an alleyway.  Surely there is more to life than watching thieves hung at Tyburn as a day out?  For a while, drinking gin and giving the punters what they want is a good life for Mary and Dolly, but several things change for Mary......

No more of the story as it's too good to tell you the whole tale.  But if you thought being poor in the 21st century was not an attractive deal, read this and see what it was like in the 18th century.  It's described so well, warts and all, and that part of London has not changed its street layouts at all, so if you are familiar with Covent Garden and The Strand, it's easy to recognise.  And if you are not familiar, a map of the time is supplied at the front of the book.  I am unsure how most of the inner city poor survived to adulthood frankly.  Little food, little money, no running water, no sewers (your pot was emptied into the street, and the delightfully named "night soil" was taken to be spread on fields to provide compost to grow food).  The descriptions of the dresses the working girls wore (slammerkins both - for loose woman and whores' dresses) will tell you much.  It's the oldest profession and you'll probably understand why as you read.  There are a lot of sexual descriptions in this book, but as it is about prostitution, it's to be expected.  There are lots of interesting facts in there - including a description of what "hangers on" were, originally.  Who knew?

Donahue has written several books since this was published around 2000, but if she'd only written this one I'd have recommended her.  From two or three lines in public records, she found a character in Mary and put flesh on her, and gave here a character you may not ever like but a character you should empathise with.  I did.