Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

I’ve noticed that I used to do this every day but I skipped yesterday. Or has it been two days already? I apologize for that. I’ve been in a rut lately and I have run out of things to write. And besides, it was a very pleasant day yesterday that it was nice just to curl up in bed and snore all day.


Anyway, I’ve another book for you. It’s called Slammerkin. I found this while scouring for more books to buy at my favorite book store. The title drew my attention. It was unique. It was a word that I have not heard of before.

Slammerkin (n.) a loose dress; a loose woman.

The cover is as intriguing as its title. It shows a woman seemingly in the first stages of passion with her neck tilted back and her lips slightly apart as if inviting someone to kiss her. Her bosom can also be seen what with her dress being too loose above the decolletage.


Now you know where I get my books. I couldn’t remove the price tag without damaging the cover.

The whole story takes place in the mid 1700’s London. The story does not revolve around the glitzy life of the haute ton but rather we’re being immersed into the gritty world of the working class and of those people who are barely above the poverty line.

We follow Mary Saunders, a girl who lusts for fine things, in her journey from daughter to prostitute to working girl to murderess. This story is inspired by her true life accounts,which are disputed and few.

Born to rough cloth in Hogarth’s London, but longing for silk, Mary Saunders’s eye for a shiny red ribbon leads her to prostitution at a young age. A dangerous misstep sends her fleeing to Monmouth, and the position of household seamstress, the ordinary life of an ordinary girl with no expectations. But Mary has known freedom, and having never known love, it is freedom that motivates her. Mary asks herself if the prostitute who hires out her body is more or less free than the “honest woman” locked into marriage, or the servant who runs a household not her own? And is either as free as a man? Ultimately, Mary remains true only to the three rules she learned on the streets: Never give up your liberty. Clothes make the woman. Clothes are the greatest lie ever told.

Plot Summary

Mary Saunders, just a pre-teen in the mid 1740’s London, becomes enamored with a pretty ribbon of scarlet from a peddler. However, for her family, living everyday is a struggle for survival and only the most basic of necessities enter the Saunder’s home. There was no place for a piece of silk ribbon. But Mary wanted that ribbon so she holds back a few coins here and there from running errands and thinking she has had enough, she went to purchase it. Yet she’s a bit short if coin and tries to bargain with the peddler. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t budge on the price but asks for a kiss as a trade. The kiss resulted into rape and she was left pregnant.

Her unforgiving family just kicks her out after finding out that she is enceinte. Mary is now on the streets of London in winter and she was raped again by a gang of soldiers and left to freeze to death. Fortunately, Doll Higgin’s, a street wise prostitute, picked her up, takes her and teaches Mary her trade. Mary had a natural abortion and she regains her strength.

Mary doesn’t mind being a prostitute at all. In fact she likes it, especially all the things she gets to wear such as silk and lace and gowns that she had once dreamed of wearing. Doll is an independent whore without a pimp or whorehouse, and Mary likes her friend’s attitude and stays for a year with her.

The second winter was a cold and bitter one. A customer wasn’t willing to brave the harsh cold to have sex standing up in an alley. Money, therefore, was low. Moreover, Mary had a cold at that time that Dolly recognized could end up killing her. Mary, with Dolly’s encouragement, entered a religious house for rehabilitation for whores. Here she recovers her health. She stayed here for several months but she eventually leaves to return back to her life on the street.

However, Doll has disappeared and she has run afoul with the landlady who used one of the meanest pimps of London as an enforcer. Mary flees London for her life.

Not knowing what to do or where to go she returns to her mother’s village in Monmouth, a part of England but now a part of Wales. She forges a letter from her supposedly dying mother to a seamstress friend of her mother’s. Mary tries to live a respectable life but soon feels the desperate hopelessness of her situation which lacked freedom and opportunity to rise from poverty.

In this household, she meets Abi, a black slave from Africa. She is fascinated that this woman wasn’t being paid wages. Being a slave, she is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jones, their employers. Mary challenges Abi to demand wages and even run away, which the slave eventually does.

Mary realizes that she has come to a dead end in this village. She longs for being a lady, having fine things, and being respectable. She decides that the only way to have a break and have money is to return back to prostitution.

Before returning to prostitution, Mary came close to falling in love. However, this man ruins everything by proposing marriage to her. She was suddenly faced with what her life would be like if she would settle down. She turns away from him cruelly and returns to becoming a whore, which she believes will get her out of her impoverished state.


I have no idea what an actual slammerkin looks like. It is described in the book as a loose dress which opens in the front which makes it easier for whores to loosen for the groping and humping their customers do.

The nearest garment that I could associate with a slammerkin would be the polonaise. No, I am not talking about the dance. It has a similar style since it opens in the front. (source) (source)

Mary Saunders is a real person. Little is known about her life except that she killed her employer with a clever. She was held in Monmouth Gaol until 7th of March 1764 and was convicted for murder. She was executed at the age of sixteen or seventeen, two weeks after she was convicted. However, the method of her execution is still a mystery. She was either burned, or hanged, or both. (source)

I am fascinated by the way the author was able to develop a story from just a few lines from a newspaper, and how Mary Saunders’ life took a turn from being a humble daughter to prostitute.

It was greed and lust for pretty things that drove her to her fate. Mary wanted to be part of the aristocracy or even just be at the fringes of it. She wanted her life to e easy and fun, flitting from ball to ball, and having servants waiting on her. In the end, her greediness had led her to her demise.

I discovered, through this book, that people actually used a condom in order to protect themselves from getting STD. The condom is made from sheep’s intestine, I think.

Anyway, this is a very fascinating read. It was definitely hard to put down.

Personal Rating

4/5 I just wish that Mary would’ve taken up her admirer’s offer and got married. Tsk. Such a waste.

Perfect Pairing

Irish creme on the rocks

irish creme


Good Reads

Up Next: Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s