This is a dark and detailed novel of historical fiction by Emma Donoghue, well known for her previous book Room — which I have not read yet but remains on my reading list. Spoilers follow.
This book follows the life of Mary — a young and hapless girl who longs for a better life or sadly at least pretty, shiny things. Mary’s father died in a protest/riot, he was a cobbler and moved to London to try to move up in the world. Her mother is bitter and has remarried a coal worker, they have just had a young baby, and her mother is a seamstress doing piece work which is both demanding and exhausting but not always steady pay.
Mary is a young teenager going to some sort of a settlement house/work house school. Her mind though is flying beyond the realities of the drudgery of her life school, the squalor she lives in and the brightly colored young ladies of the evening that lurk nearby fascinate her — if only on the superficial level longing for the color of their clothes and ribbons.
Accused of stealing by her family when buying for the dinner/meal, Mary flees and rebels daring to try to purchase a ribbon but gets raped instead. She plods along and tries to conceal the pregnancy but is soon expelled both from school and her home — her mother disowning her. She wanders the city and is gang raped by soldiers, and found by Doll one of the younger whores whose finery she previously admired.
Doll is beautiful except for a long scare on her face — a souvenir from her escape from a whorehouse. Eventually Doll convinces Mary to “enter the trade” of whoring to both pay for her keep and to end her pregnancy. Such is the induction of Mary into the world of street prostitution and cullys (aka Johns/tricks), and dangers of the vocation/life including veneral disease — “the clap.”
After contracting some sort of cold — Doll convinces Mary to go into another Christian workhouse/convent school — where she can heal and be warm over the winter. Mary recovers there and ironically finds she has inherited her mother’s talent for sewing but bristles from the religious/social requirements of the school — Mary leaves to find Doll has frozen to death and also has been locked out of her room. She is able to retrieve her things and flees to her mother’s home town — fearing the same debt collector/enforcer who slashed Doll will hurt her as well after a conflict with their former landlady.
Before the pregnancy/expulsion — her mother often said that she might be able to have her old friend take Mary on as an apprentice — so that town is her destination. Scrambling on how to pay the fair — Mary takes only one customer on the road — hoping he is continuing on the journey — pretending he had his way with her as a virgin, etc.
Part two of the novel is set in the this small village in Wales/on the border of Wales. Mary is taken in by her mother’s friend Susan and her husband Thomas who seems to have married for love but there is some sort of a weird connection there where Mary’s father once courted Susan but then married her mother, left for a larger life in London, leaving Susan behind for Thomas and then they duly fell in love and married, etc.
Susan and her husband Thomas have a dressmaking business but there is a constant hustle — often people don’t pay them in cash — one large payment was Abi — a former slave that they keep more as an indentured servant than a slave but not as a member of the family either. Susan also has had issues with childbirth and nursing and they only have one young daughter cared for by a rather mean nanny/originally a wet nurse Mrs. Ash. Both Abi and Mrs. Ash have very tragic backstories. Susan has also lost children cherishes her daughter but despite her advancing age wants to try again for a son.
Mary also has a brush with love in the house with a young man nicknamed Daffy — who didn’t like her at first as he was lobbying for her place to go to his cousin that he was trying to court/marry. Daffy is also the son of the Reverend/Tavern owner — who turns out to be Mary’s mystery customer from the road from London. Mary though is happy with Daffy for a little while until he starts talking about them having their own family and dressmaking business — she pushes him away and goes into a tailspin — deciding that she will earn her way back to freedom — or what she perceives/prefers as freedom — to return to Cheapside in London and cuts a deal with Daffy’s father the Reverend/Tavern owner to see clients/cullys in a room over the stable. It seems like she has a vague dream to return as a lady or even a dressmaker — but more likely to return as a prostitute.
Mary’s doing a steady business and by chance Thomas discovers her and per her own invitation he submits to lust/opportunity and becomes a gratis client. Soon after, when Mary is rude to important customers losing an important order, Thomas orders Susan to whip Mary — which she does and there is all kinds of drama. Mary though does not rat Thomas out but all of the turmoil inside her boils and steeps in equal parts.
Even though Susan and Mary enjoy working together, almost in faux mother and daughter mode there are strains from the beginning when Susan asked to be called “mistress” and Mary complies — resentment continues to build not only against Susan but the entire household. Post whipping/recovery when her stash of money is discovered and it is given to the church by Susan, Mary finally goes off in a frenzy — drinking and breaking into the workroom to steal a “slammerkin” she has been embroidering for most of the time she has been there. It is a tunic/lounging garment but also used by working ladies, i.e. for easy access.
Mary just longs for something beautiful that she has created/labored over to be hers/returned to her and takes it, but when Susan finds her she sees the money/the customer and demands she return it and well that sends Mary over the edge. She attacks and murders Susan and then flees only to be caught and hung. Abi the indentured servant steals the money Mary has been keeping and flees to London with the help of Quakers. Daniel gets his cousin back and is duly engaged. Mrs. Ash hopes that Thomas will marry her but he has already made a deal/commitment to marry a rival dressmaker — a marriage that will give his daughter a mother and grow his business.
It’s all happening at a breathtaking pace and riveting. To spin a story and characters from such small clipping is truly masterfully writing. My only note is the entire book is written in third person, with the first part in London it is all third person from Mary’s point of view, we never get the point of view of any other characters, her Mother, Doll, etc. The second part of the book set in Wales/in the village bordering Wales, we get pretty much everyone’s point of view along with Mary’s so it’s a lot more varied backstory.