This boldly imagined historical fiction—reminiscent, though by no means imitative, of both Defoe’s classic Moll Flanders and Margaret Atwood’s recent Alias Grace—represents a quantum leap forward for its Irish-born (now Canadian) author.
The antiheroine and protagonist is Mary Saunders, a young woman whose ingenuous lust for “fine clothing” (e.g., the “slammerkin,” which denotes both a loose gown and a “loose woman”) leads her into prostitution and murder. Donoghue (Stir-Fry, 1994; Hood, 1996) has triumphantly reimagined the life of a real historical figure of whom nothing is known beyond those few facts—beginning with Mary’s lonely London girlhood, and expulsion from her stepfather’s home when she becomes pregnant at 14; continuing throughout her thriving career as an “independent” whore, and retirement, as a charity-case “Penitent”; then climaxing at the country home of clothiers Thomas and Jane Jones, who employ and befriend Mary until her past rears its head and sets the servant against her masters in a violent and bloody resolution of their “differences.” It’s a harrowing, abundantly detailed chronicle of woman’s fate, sharply attentive to both class conflict and individual psychology, enlivened by such superbly realized figures as the willful child-woman Mary, her rough-hewn fellow prostitute and mentor Doll Higgins, and especially her eventual victim Jane Jones: a remarkable amalgam of silliness, benevolence, selflessness, and utter vulnerability. The story’s range of emotion and implication is further broadened by a masterly narrative choice: Mary’s doomed stay with the Joneses is shown through the eyes of all the characters who are affected, in fact afflicted, by her ingrained amorality and determination to have what she desires whatever the cost. Only in overstressing the weary half-truth that respectable married women and fallen women alike “sell” themselves to men does Donoghue stumble—and that’s a scarcely detectable blemish on a rich, vibrant canvas that brings the age of Hogarth and Richardson stunningly to life.
Irresistible, and deeply satisfying. Donoghue has surpassed herself.