'Slammerkin' denotes 'a loose gown or a loose woman'. The story of Mary Saunders, an eighteeenth-century girl with a reckless spirit and all-too-modern Attitude, illustrates both.
Peripheral to Mary's tale, but compelling in their own lesser stories, are the people she meets: Abi, the Angolan slave; Caesar, the free black pimp with a knife; Doll, the London whore; Mrs Ash the wet-nurse; Daffy the man-servant; Thomas Jones, and his wife Jane, tailors of Monmouth. Each individual illustrates a different aspect of choice, and of commerce; all are traders, or goods, or customers -- are any combination of these roles -- in the human commodities market.
Mary's problem might well be that she doesn't know her own worth: she sells herself low, at least to start with. There's a sense of her careering headlong: having once fallen, there's no way back, there's no mending it. And it's not that she doesn't attempt to save herself, not once but several times, in a series of reversals that lead inexorably to her final fate. Falling pregnant after a single encounter, she's cast out by her mother; set upon, she's rescued by Doll; sickening, she's taken in by the Magdalenes, and taught to stitch.
"Mary owned nothing with a colour in it, and consequently was troubled by cravings."
The theme of colour -- often red -- and its converse, pristine whiteness, recurs throughout the novel. Mary doesn't just crave colour, but it's colour -- redness -- that's her undoing, from the red ribbon which occasions her fall to the crimsoned gown that's proof of her guilt.
"London was the page on which she'd been written from the start: she didn't know who she was if she wasn't there."
Leaving London, determined to make a new start -- a reversal of the usual 'off to London to seek her fortune' trope -- Mary finds herself in the suffocating environment of Monmouth, then a small town. She finds employment with Jane Jones, a friend of her mother's: is gainfully employed as a 'prentice dressmaker, helping to embroider a white velvet slammerkin for the wife of a member of the local gentry. But her past's like an addiction, a stain: she can't leave it behind. Only right at the end of the novel does she seem to know what she wants.
Reading this so soon after The Crimson Petal and the White was interesting, not least for the contrast between Mary and Sugar. There's much less period detail in Slammerkin, but it's still evocative of the dirt and noise and mundanity of urban and rural life in the late 18th century. Donoghue's style is deceptively plain: a nice turn of phrase, especially in dialogue, but no purple flights of fancy. Mary (based on a real person) is a fascinating character, though not always likeable: her strength of purpose reminds me of Becky Sharp, but there's an underlying brutality too.