This post brought to you by the Literary Ladies We Love Challenge
I read Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue earlier this year after hearing it highly recommended by several friends. I was immediately engrossed by the novel's vivid prose and Donoghue's exacting period detail, which vacillates between lush (the fabric descriptions!) and viscerally grotesque. The novel also intrigued me for its focus on gender, as well as class and social mobility. Add in my historical prostitutes feelings, my socio-cultural importance of clothes feelings, and my morally ambiguous lady feelings and you have yourself a recipe for probably my favourite piece of historical fiction ever! I'll provide you with a brief book description in case you're unfamiliar with the text:
Slammerkin an 18th-century term meaning a loose gown or loose woman, is a fitting title for Irish writer Emma Donoghue's third novel. Mary Saunders's mother scratches out a meager living as a seamstress in 1760s London, but Mary longs for a more luxurious life with fine ribbons and clothes. At 13, she sneers at her mother's suggestion that she take up the needle, then makes a fateful mistake that leads her into prostitution. On the street, the young woman indulges her fine tastes and lives an independent life. When illness forces her to seek help, she vows to reform her lifestyle. Mary flees to a tiny hamlet where she finds work as a maid and seamstress. In her new life, she discovers the comforts of a home and family. But she questions whether "honest" women are any freer than prostitutes and is unable to forget her former life and her need for autonomy, a need that leads to violence. This eloquent and engrossing novel, rich in historical detail and based on an actual murder, raises numerous issues about a woman's station in society during this period.
As I was adding my rating on GoodReads, I decided to check out other reviews for the book, as one sometimes does. Many readers reveled in the same aspects of the book that I found so engrossing. And then there were the negative reviews. I'll share a sample with you here. I'd like you, dear readers, to take note of the pattern emerging:
To me, she was very 2-dimensional: she was vain, vapid, egotistical, wholly unapologetic (about her thoughts/feelings/actions) that she was just completely unrelatable. I found her to be very unsympathetic, and for me, that made getting through the book very difficult. Many times, as readers, we look for something within a character which can be relatable to our own lives, but the characterization of Mary Saunders was such that I just found her intolerable and insufferable. This book had a lot of ingredients for me to love, but it just fell completely flat. I felt absolutely nothing for the main character, Mary. I think that was the crux of the problem. She is just a psychopath. I mean at least give me a better reason for her to willingly give into that ribbon peddler at age 14 than she just likes colorful hair bows. What? Come on. I found myself sneering at the Mary, the main character, rather than rooting for her. I didn't want her to succeed. What had she done to deserve it? She was self-centred and unapologetic and I could never see the logic behind her actions. She just sort of did these crazy things. Maybe I just couldn't appreciate it because I despised the protagonist who seemed to have no sympathy, empathy, hopes, dreams, hobbies or show any emotions really (aside from prostitution, expensive fashion, lying and destroying families). Throughout the story Mary is continuously being given to, even in the beginning she didn't have too bad of a life but continued to make things worse for herself without any thought. Not once did she show any shred of common sense and continuously proved to me what a moron she was. I have to wonder if the story needed to be told. Wouldn't it be much better to tell the story of a young abused child of 14 years pushed out into the streets and treated kindly by a prostitute and then who becomes a prostitute to make ends meet who then finds her way out of that pit and becomes successful?
I would say that 90% of the negative reviews of this book focus on Mary as a character. I'm not here to police people's reactions, because reading and interpreting is a very personal experience. But oh my god you guys, people are wrong on the Internet. And I'm here to defend the characterization of Mary Saunders, like a righteous crusader for literary justice and stuff!
The criticisms of Mary seem to all centre on qualities readers find distasteful: that she is "loathsome", "not relatable", "pathetic", and "stupid". Many readers also seem troubled by the fact that Mary is "irredeemable", that she is not some hooker with a heart of gold who triumphs over adversity because, gosh darnit, she really is a sweet gal. The thing is, many of the adjectives used by the readers in the quotes above are not inaccurate. Mary Saunders is vain, selfish, unapologetic, manipulative, and vicious. But she also is some who suffers, someone who cares, someone who has desires. And it's true that this is not a novel about a woman overcoming her faults and circumstances to be a better person. But unlike the one-star crowd, I don't think this makes her a bad character or the narrative a bad story. The lot of my fandom life seems to be to cry out to the heavens, A CHARACTER DOES NOT NEED TO BE GOOD IN ORDER TO BE A GOOD CHARACTER! A CHARACTER DOES NOT NEED TO BE LIKABLE FOR ME TO LIKE THE CHARACTER! OH, AND SOMETIMES CHARACTERS DON'T NEED REDEMPTION ARCS!
I think the reviews like those above do not speak to the quality of Donoghue's writing but, rather, the trend among consumers of popular culture to balk at female characters who are morally grey or villainous. We seem perfectly capable as a society to embrace flawed (extremely flawed) male characters, but large swaths of people are incapable of processing women like Mary Saunders. Women with destructive desires. Ambitious women. Women who don't want or need redemption. Women who refuse to accept the narrow avenues allotted to them. Women who are loud. Women who are wild. Women who scratch and claw and fight and want without paying heed to anyone else. I don't expect fictional characters to fit some moral paradigm, nor do I expect every character I like to be the kind of person that I'd like to be best friends with or someone I can see a piece of myself in. I expect them to be interesting. In Slammerkin Emma Donoghue gives us just that - a beautifully-rendered character in Mary Saunders. Beyond the rich historical detail and Donoghue's gorgeous prose, what drew me into the story was Mary. Mary, who challenged me and made me cackle and gasp and cry and feel. A character who made me recoil at her actions just as often as I sympathized with her. Mary, Mary, quite contrary to the societal expectations placed on women, who furiously cuts a wide swath across the page and, like the slash of red across her mouth, boldly demands your full attention.
"Other girls seemed unburdened by ambition; most folks seemed content with their lot. Ambition was an itch in Mary’s shoe, a maggot in her guts. Even when she read a book, her eyes skimmed and galloped over the lines, eager to reach the end. She suspected ambition was what was making her legs grow so long and her mouth so red."