Born to rough cloth in working-class London in 1748, Mary Saunders hungers for linen and lace. Her lust for a shiny red ribbon leads her to a life of prostitution at a young age, where she encounters a freedom unknown to virtuous young women. But a dangerous misstep sends her fleeing to Monmouth and the refuge of the middle-class household of Mrs. Jones, to become the seamstress her mother always expected her to be and to live the ordinary life of an ordinary girl. Although Mary becomes a close confidante of Mrs. Jones, her desire for a better life leads her back to prostitution. She remains true only to the three rules she learned on the streets of London: Never give up your liberty; Clothes make the woman; Clothes are the greatest lie ever told. In the end, it is clothes, their splendor and their deception, that lead Mary to disaster.
I was first attracted to this book by the blurb I read at Amazon and the fact that it was based on real events.
Now after I finished it I can see that little is known about the real Mary Saunders and that Donoghue created a powerful story from the barest of facts. She has a knack for describing London at it's worst and I even found the first half of the book difficult to read as Mary does not have an easy time of it. Mostly ignored by her mother after her father died and she remarried Mary goes to school and yearns for a better life. That wish will make her admire the well dressed whore she sees on her way to school and makes her want to have a beautiful red ribbon. After a fight with her mother she goes out, upset, to by the ribbon and finds herself raped by the ribbon seller. Unable to tell her mother she tries to hide and forget her misery till an anonymous letter announces her pregnancy and she is thrown out by her mother.
Without a place to go she is abused by soldiers and finally saved by the whore she admired and led to a life of prostitution. Seemingly unconscious of the price she is paying and of how her actions may affect her future life Mary finds she can earn easy money and finally aspire to a better life. She learns But life on the streets of London is not easy and she decides to reform. After some time at a charity hospital she feels imprisoned and decides to go back to the village where her parents came from. There she finds a life with some normalcy as she becomes the servant of the Jones family and after a while even finds her true vocation as a seamstress. She plans to save money and better herself when a conversation with her master shows her that a servant will always be a servant, her love story with a boy also employed in the same home also makes her realise that she can never lead the normal life of having children and creating a family. Desperate to have some money and return to London Mary once again becomes a prostitute while still living and working for the Jones. Her desperation grows and when Mrs Jones takes a drastic action a tragedy occurs.
I must say that I really liked Mary, she was not always polite or nice but she was honest about what she wanted and about how to get it. She could have stolen the money or things to sell but instead she worked the only way she knew to make a quick profit, being a whore. The better things she aspired to were represented by the clothes she carried with her, because clothes make the woman.
In the end I was left feeling life had been rather unfair for poor Mary. She never had much and in the end even what little she had was taken from her. I was left wondering if in that period of so many society rules and with a strong system of classes if one could possible raise from what they were born into and find a better place. It was a fascinating read albeit not an easy one. Donoghue takes us to the dark side of society and there's no happy ending in sight. A compelling story!
This book was inspired by an actual murder in the Welsh border regions in 1763. In surviving newspaper articles from the time it is suggested that the young girl who committed the murder did so because she was obsessed with clothes. This is the basis that Emma Donoghue chooses to follow.
When we first meet Mary Donoghue she is 14 years old, and a schoolgirl living in London, at an age where most other working class girls have been sent out to work. Mary hasn't been sent out to work yet because her mother promised her father before he was executed for his part in a rebellion that she would ensure that Mary was educated. Mary's mother has remarried to a man that Mary can't stand, and who resents the fact that he is supporting a girl who is old enough to find work and assist more in the household. The problem is that Mary feels that she is too good to go into service, too good to become a seamstress, yet she wants all the fine things in life.
Early in the book Mary has an encounter with a peddler where she gives away her virtue for the price of a red ribbon. Left pregnant by the encounter she is eventually kicked out of home when her condition is discovered. She shortly finds herself in one of the roughest areas of London, and it isn't too big a leap for her before she finds herself servicing the cullies and making some money for herself. Her one friend is a fellow prostitute named Doll, who teaches Mary the tricks of the trade and how to get by, as well as warning her who to stay away from.
In the midst of a terribly cold winter, Doll convinces Mary that needs to sign up to go into a home for reformed prostitutes, if only so that she has warmth and food for the rest of the winter. When she finally rebels against the strict rules and religious environment of the home she comes back to find her only friend gone, well, dead...and then on the wrong side of one of the most dangerous pimps in London.
Mary flees to her mother's home town of Monmouth, hoping to find a new life for herself, to match with the new history she has made of her life. She is taken in as a maid for her mother's former best friend, Mrs Jones, who rapidly befriends Mary, not only employing her but also making her her confidant in her struggle to give her husband a son.
Also living in her home are the slave Abi, originally from Africa, via the Caribbean, who works for no wages. There is also Mrs Ash who was originally employed as a wet nurse but has been living with the family for many years, now in the guise of a governess for the one surviving daughter. Finally there is Daffy, and intense but likeable young man who is trying to make a life for himself away from his hypocritical, cleric father, who also runs one of the village pubs.
Once Mary is living with the Jones, this story becomes several things - firstly a study of extended family as defined at the time to include servants and slaves, secondly, a story of empowerment as Mary encourages Abi to try and get some wages for her toil. Finally, this is a story about whether Mary can take the chance that she has given to live a life away from the prostitution that she has previously undertaken. At one point it appears that Daffy and Mary may marry, but that is shortlived as Mary realises that if she does marry Daffy she will be stuck in a little town in the Welsh Marches for the rest of her life.
As Mary goes through life, pretty much destroying the peace of mind of the people around her, the author gives us a character who is almost totally unlikeable. What makes her so greedy, so convinced of her elevated worth in her own mind, and yet so able to rationalise that choosing a life of prostitution is okay for her. Mary in effect lives hard and fast and dies early without ever seemingly being happy, or at the very least unable to realise when she has a good thing going - a precautionary tale if nothing else.
Whilst Mary, and many of the other characters are unlikeable, and this is in many ways a story without much hope, it is nonetheless well written and compelling. I have had it on my TBR list for ages, so I am glad to have finally read it! Even where there are glimpses of hope, for example, for Abi, to me the suggestion for the future was not really one of happiness.
Within that though, there are glimpses of humour, such as when the ultra religious and judgmental Mrs Ash gets her comeuppance, but those moments are few and far between.
When rating this book, I hovered between 3.5 and 4, mainly because the characters are pretty much unlikeable, but the writing was compelling, and I was completely drawn into the story on more than one occasion.
**Originally posted on my blog - March 2006**