Dear friends and readers,
In this novel I re-visited matter that first riveted me at age 12 to 13. The ultimate rebel heroine. I read the book about 3 years ago and recognized this but had the same response (almost, really) as age 12-13. Not this time. At long last not. It has taken 51 years to see the full pathos of Mary, what it means for real, not just for the character, by my own identification and bonding. I cannot speak it in this blog as it must be spoken personally, so I will talk of this another day on Sylvia. Below I do the conventional performance, but before that let me say, poor poor Mary. So impossibly without hope of adequate choice, understanding of what to do and how to do it, such an obscene liberty as she is confronted by.
I finished Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin for the second time yesterday and was even more impressed by it than I had been the first. Donoghue takes the bare outlines of the life of a young servant girl hanged and then burnt for killing her mistress and creates a vividly moving tale which brings home to the reader how vulnerable to destruction poor young women were before the mid-20th century just about everywhere and in many places on the earth still are if they succumb to male sexual aggression — and become (as is probable they will) pregnant.
I did not chose this novel as the one by a woman, a heroine’s text set in the 18th century by a later 20th century novel to fit into my interest in the theme of liberty, but it turned out a central ironic chapter is entitled “liberty” and one of its central themes is indeed how women are answerable with their bodies to survive. Many allusions to other 18th century novels (Richardson’s Grandison, Lennox’s Henrietta), to plays (Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance), contemporary historically real women (the Metyards, Queen Charlotte, Kitty Fisher). The scenes are emphatically not imitations of scenes in 18th century novels; they differ radically – that’s part of the point I suppose, but there are numerous novels alluded to. Mary read “the story Pamela Andrews” (for example) and does not see why she should not achieve the same. We are taught why she could not.
The initiating story: The book opens (Prologue) with the execution of Mary’s father, Cob Saunders, whom we are told rebelled against the loss of 11 days when the calendar shifted in the 18th century. In Chapter One, called Ribbon Red, Mary is then inescapably despised as the daughter of an utterly failed man; her mother, Susan, remarries, has children by the second husband, a Mr Digot, a boy much more valued than she. She is beaten, half-starved, given wretched rags to wear and told the best she can expect is what “respectability” she will seem to receive if she is utterly obedient to all repressive norms; she is taught (barely) to write and read and sew. At age 13 returning from her school to the hovel she lives with these parents in (a coal cellar in London), she is dazed and unsure what a man is after when he holds out the reward of a red ribbon to her; she is in effect raped before she realizes what has happened, and when her hard harsh mother discovers Mary is pregnant, Susan Digot throws her out with a tiny bundle of clothe ostensibly because Mary will not tell a tale of remorse and shame.
This incident is deeply poignant. Mary cries out in her heart, aloud, and later unconsciously “mother why did you desert me?”. This betrayal of daughter by mother is as key an event as the rape for a ribbon.
There follows a brief stretch of narrative (about a third of the first half of the book) where Mary soars with wild delight as she plays the role of a fantastically desperate Magdalen (Chapter Two) with a kindly young woman in her 20s, Doll Higgins, who takes Mary under her “wings” and gives her a happy time — despite the freezing cold, living in a filthy vile room (furniture-less, vermin-filled). She is like a girl with her first best friend who she loves and who seems to love her. Doll is the first person to be kind to Mary, and the only person in the novel (except for Daffy, the young man who offers to marry her and is potentially we can see a benevolent man) who treats her as an equal as well as supporting her emotionally and socially. They support themselves in the only way women could in 18th century England: by selling their bodies, only outside acceptable custom, as prostitutes for so many pence or shilling a time. They are exhilarated with youth and their deep congeniality, seemingly perversely thrilled to be outside any respect, safety net as they drop in (so to speak) to masquerades, plays, dances, large social crowd events.
Alas, Mary becomes ill from the cold, poor food, bad living conditions, and, not discouraged by her friend who appears not to want to get sick herself, inveigles her way into the Magdalen Foundling Hospital where she has to live like a prisoner (though supposed voluntarily), in a strongly regimented day and night in return for which she gets regularly good food, warm clothes, a clean warm bed and room, and the hope of a “good” future as a placed servant as long as she carries on obedient.
As in many novels, we have already learned that our heroine has many gifts (intelligence, capability with her hands as a seamstress, beauty enough) and is quietly appreciated by the head mistress, but (anticipating what is to come at the end of the book) after a while as her health improves, she begins to long to enjoy herself, to be herself, for freedom, and insists on being allowed to leave — and as with her mother, will not pretend to the morality which upholds the order that condemns her to servitude to men and more powerful women on their terms. She tells a lie that she has a place waiting for her with a friend of her mother’s in Monmouth: her mother had told her of this friend. The matron calls this an egregious lie and (in effect) harshly ejects with Mary after Mary refuses to listen to her advice, with Mary’s bundle once again (this time it has the flimsy sexy things she had gathered as a prostitute) to (the ironically titled) third chapter, Liberty.
We know she longs to be with Doll again and seeks Doll out, only to discover Doll somehow froze to death in an alley behind the hovel they shared. We have been told enough of the gay Doll to know Doll was herself depressed, self-despising, bitter, and proud. Mary realizes she should not have deserted Doll, that she did desert Doll and Doll had grown to need her as much as she needed Doll. She has lost her ability she thinks to live so squalidly — actually she had it only because she had Doll. She can only survive by selling herself.
Making a strong contrast to Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Mary Saunders never appears to enjoy sex with the men she sells herself to, only to feel a sort of triumph over them. Donoghue is a superb enough novelist to project sexual pleasure or thrills in the narrative, but they are only registered through the indirect third person discourse, never what Mary feels. Mary does register that Doll was in love with one man and did enjoy sex with him (but only him), but Mary never feels even this. It’s a straight cold transaction — this makes a lot more sense than the erotica Cleland dreams up. Without Doll’s social manipulative abilities and cool, Mary quickly gets herself in trouble with a brothel madam and is in danger of a knife attack (punishment) from a wild black man the brothel madam uses to keep the girls in place. Rather than carry on this horrible life under terror, she boards a wagon to Monmouth.
We are now into Part Two, much the longer part of the narrative, really 2/3s of it. Unfortunately, Mary has to sell herself once more to earn the 14 shillings she needs to pay the wagoner to get to Monmouth whose smallness, bareness, nothingness astonishes her. We are to believe she finds her mother’s friend and the friend (due to the letter Mary has written) takes Mary in as the orphaned daughter of her once best friend. We now read a long story of Mary’s gradual adjustment to the household and those in it to her: the master, Mr Thomas Jones (surely an ironic allusion to Fielding’s hero) a one-legged man; the child, Hetta (named after a “Mrs Lennox’s Henrietta), the black servant ex-slave Mary sleeps with, Abi (given the name Abigail); the ex-wet-nurse now semi-governess, deserted by her husband after the child she had by him was crushed by him in his sleep, Mrs Nance Ash, an embittered frustrated older woman, the apprentice, Daffy, and most importantly the mistress, her mother’s ex-friend, Mrs Jane Jones, who runs the shop as chief seamstress and businesswoman. The life is at first hard and monotonous (Chapter Four, The Whole Duty of Woman) and it is always strongly disciplined but as time goes on (Chapter Five, Thaw), her mistress becomes her friend, she is accepted and even receives a secret proposal of marriage from Daffy which she at first accepts.
I say unfortunately for the customer is Joseph Cadwaladyr who turns out to be the local curate and tavern-owner who at first failed to threaten Mary to work for him as a whore, but who she then (not altogether understandably at all) turns to when she suddenly sickens of her life and decides (wholly unrealistically) her ambition is to be rich, return to London, become admired and the center of admiration, so she must gather money to travel back. The only way to do this is sell her body. And she has Cadwaladry to turn to (Chapter Six, Bloom Fall). This sickening with her lot is brought on in an immediate way after she allows Daffy to have sex with her and hates it — or both him for being a virgin and herself for having been a whore.
The center of this sudden utter alienation from her life with these people is that Mary can only escape the complete loss of status (like a slave has) if she agrees to live a life of total self-repression and hide from those she works for afterwards what she “was.” If she fits in as wife to Daffy, possible mother to his children, lives a life like that of Jane Jones. This she can not get herself to do either; she seems to take into her self-image the scorn for herself others demonstrate and self-destructs by returning to this trade in an attempt to accumulate money. Of course gradually what she is doing becomes known (Chapter Seven, Punishment). She pretends to be getting cider or ale for her mistress nightly when she is selling herself fifteen minutes at a time by a wall. The first great risk comes when her master catches her and himself succumbs to sex with her — and hates himself afterwards.
She becomes a quietly half-mad presence in the house disturbing everyone, for she does not want to flee. She does like the comfort, the respect, the peace. Daffy grows to hate her as she rejects him harshly and without explanation. She insinuates rebellion into Abi’s mind: Abi tires of her endless work schedule with no friend and no pleasure beyond existing safely and in peace. Mary is a rival to Mrs Ash. Most of all she is somehow enabling Mrs Jones to rebel too: Mrs Jones begins to become Mary’s best friend (Jane and Mary), a confidante she chooses over her husband, a fellow maker of stays and gorgeous clothes (include beautifully embroidered and furred slammerkins for the wealthier women of the town). Mrs Jones says she is a new mother, and ironically turns out to be one just like Susan Digot. At first Mrs Jones herself psychologically refuses to read all the signs that accumulate and will not guess at the probable source of Mary’s money when it’s found. She does intuitively know it was meant for an escape and, telling Mary she would otherwise have to turn Mary in as a criminal (to be hung or transported as a thief), herself gives it away to Cadwaladyr’s charity box.
The crazed self inside Mary leaps forth in the scene that ensues. Mary steals Mrs Jones’s secret smaller hoard, packs the clothes she and Mrs Jones had created, and puts one on (a totally inappropriate act).
When Mrs Jones demands an explanation, tells of her whoredom; Mrs Jones explains she has given Mary’s money away and this act so incenses Mary (it was hers, painfully earned as the values of her society taught her, over many months of wretched sex acts) that she murders the woman with an axe.
The book is not over quickly. The last chapter, As the Crow Flies, gives us a full account of her wild attempt to flee, her imprisonment, the court trial (a mockery). We see Mr Jones’s adjustment and proposal to a rival seamstress in Monmouth, and Mrs Ashe’s humiliation (she hoped he’d chose her). Abi’s flight to London: the white people gave Mary the chance to blame Abi, and even if they didn’t, she knows instinctively with Mrs Jones gone she is again at risk for slavery (the cruelties of concubinage). And Daffy we see him once again take up with a girl, Gwynn, whose parents had seemed to reject him after they were engaged. Daffy is the one living person who seems to feel for Mary, (by contrast Gwynn scorns her) seems to suspect that she had potential to live within the norms of the community with him, and projects forgiveness in his mind. We have Mary’s weeks waiting to die, and then the terrifically powerful death scene. She has seen people hung, and remembers back to the Metyards (a historically real mother and daughter) and imitates the daughter by leaping to her death when the rope is placed about her neck just before she is to be turned off.
The saving grace is the greatest horror of all. She is sentenced to be burnt afterwards as a treacherous rebel to someone above her. But we are told without this her body would have been snatched by the doctors (Donoghue has read Albion’s Fatal Tree), so better to turn into ashes than be answerable with her body in this final degraded way.
The ending with its final moment of defiance and death by leaping reminded me of Lewis’s The Monk; the murder story of a half-mad seamstress servant accused of killing her mistress of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace
So what is this about as it’s most fundamental? That a woman is answerable with her body and has no liberty, can find none because of this. She could not escape it in the 18th century and the mirror held up here insinuates she will not escape it now, only this demand comes in softened qualified forms if she obeys the new norms and rules. It exemplifies what I have been thinking about when it comes to women and liberty: Mary to live must sell her body either indirectly or directly; to be free of bodily punishment at brothels (low class are the only kind that will take her in), not a chattel she must do it on the streets. The poignancy of the moment when her mother turns her out is extraordinary as well as the underlying exposure of how a mother can do this to a daughter, cut her off utterly and be supported in this by the community. IN this novel women succour and they betray women. How can they not? Like men, when so powerless, so exposed to punishment at the slightest rebellion, they prey on those closest to them. Her behavior threatens her mother’s marriage with the second husband and status. I admit I was put off by Mary’s ambition (see comment for this perspective).
Doll’s many sayings voice Mary’s rebellion under the conditions of the time and now: Never give up your liberty (don’t go into an old people’s home when old; don’t give someone else power of attorney). Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told (see pp. 62-63).
It’s superior to the two novels by Donoghue I’ve read thus far: The Room uses a child narrator whose perspective distances us from the horrific events of the book; Life Mask, also set in the 18th century, is too thoroughly constructed with research from well-known documented lives to come alive. It’s another on the same subject or perspective as her superb non-fiction literary critical Passions Between Women, and several other of her fictions, either set in an earlier era, The Sealed Letter (set in the 19th century), Kissing the Witch (a retelling of fairy tales which brings out their typical misogyny by recasting them from the woman’s point of view with sympathy).
When we read this novel on Eighteenth Century Worlds, I remember Judy asking if I knew of any 18th century novel where a girl began as virtuous and slid into prostitution. I now can answer that one: yes, Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Fanny ends in triumph, as the real and this fictional Mary Saunders does not, but last summer’s reading in Therese Philosophe and other erotica novels revealed other heroines who begin as “poor but honest” and survive as prostitutes for a time, but only a time.