Unwilling to become a seamstress or a maid, the usual fate of a lower-class girl in 18th-century London, Mary Saunders sets out to make her own fortune. Her desire for a better life actually leads her to a life of prostitution on the seedy London streets. When trouble begins, she is sent to her mother's friend in Wales, Mrs. Jones, to become a dressmaker. Though life is good, it is ordinary, and Mary eventually returns to the London streets and disaster.
Slammerkin (the 18th-century word for both a loose dress and a loose woman) is a very colorful, highly visual, very graphic portrait of a livelybut not always lovelyera when women's limited choice of occupations thrust many into the streets. This novel, which is loosely based on a true story, makes no bones about the fact that Mary's circumstances are brutal; it's not for the faint-hearted. Perhaps Ms. Donoghue's quest for realism goes too far, in that Mary never finds peace, happiness or redemption. But even when disturbing, SLAMMERKIN is nearly impossible to put down. Its fine detail and information about dressmaking is compelling. SENSUAL (Apr., 334 pp., $12.95)