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The representation of motherhood in Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin.

'To me history is a kind of warehouse of stories for me to burgle.'

Emma Donoghue

'Feminists writing women's history have a dual goal: to restore women to history and to restore our history to women.'

Maggie Humm, The Dictionary of Feminist Theory (1)

Irish-born novelist Emma Donoghue, resident in Canada for almost a decade now, inaugurated the new century with the publication of a novel, Slammerkin (2000), which departed from her previous fictions. (2) Opting for a more universal subject, she left aside her Irish-based plots, mostly concerned with issues of identity and early, same-sex love, to construct a historical narrative based on the story of a real young woman who brutally murdered her mistress with a cleaver in 1763. Donoghue's PhD dissertation focused on friendship between women in the eighteenth century. She returns to this topic unearthing the largely unknown story of the unscrupulous Mary Sounders, who was remarkable for her power and strength within an extremely patriarchal society. The novel recounts the life of this unconventional female figure, who was dragged into prostitution as a result of her obsession with luxury clothes, and who was publicly executed. Following a bipartite structure, Slammerkin is located in two different settings: the slums of eighteenth-century London, where women endured a more than harsh existence; and its counterpoint, the rural scenery of Monmouth, an apparently quiet village on the Welsh Borders in which the protagonist also meets an adverse fate.

My contention is that both the socio-historical milieus in which the novel is situated and the frame within which the fiction is embedded function as apparently realistic realms which help the author to explore a symbolic space, that of motherhood, which could also be considered responsible for the shaping of the protagonist's life and for her dramatic ending. As I will show, Mary veers between the two opposing poles of matrophobia and matrophilia, in relation to both her real mother and the surrogates she encounters. This ambivalence will eventually lead her to search for an alternative space outside the maternal bond, challenging prevailing assumptions about social and gender expectations regarding motherhood. Bearing all these aspects in mind, the purpose of this analysis is to examine the significance Donoghue attributes to the different aspects of motherhood and its power as a determining force in the development of the self.

The mother-daughter relationship has become a recurrent theme for Irish writers. (3) Many novels by Irish female authors focus on this topic, including Mary Rose Callaghan's Mothers (1982), Claire Boylan's Holy Pictures (1983), Edna O'Brien's Time and Tide (1992), Jennifer Johnston's The Illusionist (1996), Mary Morrissy's Mother of Pearl (1996), and Catherine Dunne's In the Beginning (1997). (4) In all these novels, mothers adopt a wide variety of roles that extend from committed, possessive, and castrating characters, to more tolerant, abject, or absent figures. However, these different views of mothering share, one way or another, a common presumption: the patriarchal view that mothers are responsible for the development of their daughter's identities. According to Janneke van Mens-Verhulst, the fact that the 'active, intervening side of motherhood' has usually been emphasized to the detriment of 'the passive, submissive side of daughterhood' has had the effect of creating an 'offender and [a] victim'. (5) From the 1970s onwards, there has been an ongoing debate originated by an array of feminist theories--from psychoanalytical and philosophical to more sociological and liberal--which has re-examined, challenged, validated, and reconfigured alternative meanings of both the concept of motherhood and the practice of mothering. (6) Nowadays, as Isabel Z. Brown explains, 'the interest in mother/daughter relationships has been gradually supplanted by interest in the self-affirmation of the individual female vis-a-vis numerous cultural settings'. (7) Although it is not my intention to dwell on theoretical constructions of motherhood, I will draw upon the ideas of a few critics who have shed some light on the singularities of the mother-daughter relationship.

Within this frame of reference, I will consider the concepts of matrophobia and matrophilia as two extremes along which the mother-daughter relationship expands. However, as the two sides of the same coin, they will not necessarily oppose each other but, as is the case of Donoghue's novel, they are revealed as interconnected and complementary. In Slammerkin, the feelings of matrophilia and matrophobia will mould the tensions suffered by the protagonist as she grows up. At the same time, they will lead to the reader's questioning of deterministic notions about the misery and the consequent fate of the downtrodden. Centring only on terminology, I should make clear that neither of these two concepts has found a current use and that, in fact, they have been treated as neologisms. The history of the term matrophobia can be traced back to when it was first coined by the British poet Lynn Sukenick, although it was Adrienne Rich who later defined it as 'the fear not of one's mother or of motherhood but of becoming one's mother'. (8) According to Rich, women's fear of following their mother's footsteps could become a burden for the development of young women:
 Thousands of daughters see their mothers as having taught a
 compromise and self-hatred they are struggling to win free of, the
 one through whom the restrictions and degradations of a female
 existence were perforce transmitted. Easier by far to hate and
 reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces
 acting upon her. But where a mother is hated to the point of
 matrophobia there may also be a deep underlying pull toward her, a
 dread that if one relaxes one's guard one will identify with her
 completely. (9)

In her study, Rich made a case for the differences between the experience and the institution of motherhood. While the first might be the result of a free choice, the second maintained women under the power of patriarchy. However, for many females, including the protagonist of Donoghue's novel, motherhood is perceived as a vehicle by which women inevitably become trapped in the role society assigns them, preventing them from distinguishing between the two. Therefore, discussions of motherhood as a choice will be contrasted with those of motherhood as a social expectation in this essay.

Opposed to matrophobia, but in more than one way complementary to it, matrophilia is characterized by a strong attachment to the mother grounded in the search for the maternal bond, which involves feelings such as affection, admiration, and a need for protection. Matrophilia can be experienced about a biological mother or anyone who might act as a surrogate. In both cases, it is marked by a positive impulse that reinforces a female continuum giving form to matrilineality because, within the patriarchal order, as Shoshana Felman has noted, 'a woman [...] is first and foremost a daughter/a mother/a wife'. (10) In Slammerkin the protagonist will defy the foundations upon which patriarchy is sustained since she will perform a double murder--of her real mother in her discourse and of her surrogate one in the realm of fiction--thus becoming motherless. She will also opt for the abortion of her own child, thus rejecting her role as mother. And, finally, she will be unable to picture herself as a wife, since she sees this role as 'only a kind of upper servant'. (11)

Set in 1760, Slammerkin revolves around a young fourteen year-old girl and her unreserved desires to possess sophisticated clothes and to ascend the social scale. Mary Sounder's yearning for silk, glittering garments, and shiny dresses originates in her early childhood when she exchanges a kiss--which ends up in a rape--for a few coins to buy a 'glossy scarlet ribbon' (p.8) that she has been admiring for days in the hair of a harlot and that she desperately needs for herself. When her mother finds out that she is pregnant, she is ruthlessly thrown out of home. Back on the unsafe streets of London's suburbs, Mary is again raped by a group of young soldiers. Becoming motherless, in symbolic terms, she finds solace in the affectionate arms of Doll Higgins, (12) a prostitute who acts as her mentor, cares for her, teaches her dignity and the tricks of her profession, and protects her from the wrongs of society, adopting, therefore, the role of substitute mother. With the intention of saving just enough to pay for an abortion, Mary is entrapped in prostitution until she is infected with gonorrhoea and, with the help of Doll, enters the Magdalene hospital, a charity centre for reformed prostitutes. There, she receives medical and emotional attention and is given the opportunity to enjoy a better life. However, and to the dismay of readers, Mary discovers that honest women are not freer than prostitutes. Thus, her lust for money and fine clothes lead her to resume her previous life, only to find Doll on the streets and to discover that she has literally frozen to death. Although Mary intends to pay for the burial, she finally abandons her and, motherless again, begins another search for a substitute mother.

The second and longer part of the narration suggests a new beginning for Mary, when she moves from London to the village of Monmouth, the place from which her parents came. The impossible return to her biological mother induces Mary to plan, in discursive terms, her murder. The killing of her mother is performed within her own narrative account by means of a false letter of introduction that she carries, addressed to her mother's old friend, Mrs Jones. Claiming to have been written on her death bed, it expresses her last wish: to procure for her daughter a job as a maid in her household. Not only is a second opportunity granted to Mary to walk away from her previous life, but she is also treated as an adopted daughter whom Mrs Jones trusts and to whom she even confides some of her intimacies. Although she plays very well at being an innocent girl with the naive Mrs Jones, once more, her uncontrollable ambition for freedom and craving for money push her into prostitution. When Mrs Jones discovers her savings and suspects their dubious origins, she places the 'dirty' money (p.373) in the Poor Box in church, provoking Mary's final outburst of rage. As a result, she ends up stealing Mrs Jones's luxurious clothes and killing her. At the end of the narration, at only sixteen, the reader witnesses how Mary has become an outlaw and is imprisoned, waiting to be publicly executed. Full of pride she still carries with her the now 'faded red ribbon' (p.3) that had ruined her life in the first place and, as the narrator adds, 'she would have given anything to be hanged in black satin. How vanity endured to the end!' (p.418). The book closes with a note in which Donoghue briefly comments on the 'disputed and few' (p.421) factual deeds of Mary Saunders, and distinguishes real from invented characters.

Given the historical context of Donoghue's novel, it is not surprising that early critics and reviewers of Slammerkin considered Mary's deprived life and greedy ambition to be the result of sociological circumstances that had driven her to her destiny. (13) It is true that the novel is set in two different geographical and socio-cultural milieus, which mimic each other inviting the reader to make comparisons. However, London is not simply depicted as a big and dangerous city, responsible for the corruption of many of its inhabitants, since Mary is similarly dissolute in the quiet village of Monmouth. Hence, Slammerkin ultimately poses the question of whether milieu plays a determining role in the development of the self. In fact, not seeing the novel in such a way would mean to agree with ideologically dominant--and male-oriented--interpretations of the narrations of history, which have traditionally rewarded 'good girls', meaning, respectable, and honest women, and punished the 'bad ones', those who earned their livings through dishonest professions or whose morality was questionable. While literature has relied on many of the former for the portrayal of its exemplary heroines, history has tried to consign to oblivion those whose morality was more dubious since they could endanger the frail minds of other women. For this reason, I would suggest that with this novel Donoghue is making a case for a clearly transgressive female figure who stood out precisely because she did not fit in with the restrictions of eighteenth-century patriarchal society, and whose life was reduced to a brief and inaccurate record in the historical annals. Linden Peach makes a similar argument:
 Like all who constitute the socially marginalized, prostitutes,
 Donoghue recognizes, are not only labelled as 'different' by the
 kind of spaces they occupy and their perceived status in the
 dominant society but are 'othered' by the dominant discourse
 through which they are represented [...]. Thus, Mary finds herself
 situated both within and outside the dominant discourses that
 define gender identities and social behaviours. Mary herself, like
 the figure of the prostitute which in the eighteenth century was
 becoming a more subversive presence, occupies the 'in-between'
 position, between relocation and reinscription. (14)

This 'in-betweenness' that Mary occupies turns Donoghue's historical novel into a narrative of resistance. (15) In depicting the subversive life of a rebellious young woman, the author can question prevailing assumptions about motherhood. And motherhood is shown to be a social construction and not a biologically determined condition by which women may define their identity.

Nonetheless, Slammerkin does not just focus on the positive and negative relationships between a daughter and real or surrogate mothers, since the theme of motherhood interplays with other motifs in the novel. Psychological insights into the mother-daughter relationship have shown that the mother is the prime source of identification for daughters as they achieve maturity. (16) Significantly, at the beginning of the narration we are informed that Mary is the daughter of Susan Digot, a poor seamstress who, after being widowed, remarried and bore another child, a male, at a time when a 'boy was worth ten times as much as a girl' (p.12). Having a half-brother for whom her mother and stepfather profess a conspicuous fondness, Mary, 'a great useless girl' (p.12), grows up rejecting everything her mother represents. Wishing to be more than just a seamstress or a maid--exclusively female occupations (17) she confronts her mother realizing that 'she'd been bred up for this very purpose, to stand as a buffer between Susan Digot and her fate' (p.24). However, the lack of affection, nurture, and understanding that determine Mary's childhood should be seen in the context of eighteenth-century social conventions, which expected parents to privilege sons over daughters. The submission of her mother to male dominance--represented by her husband and son--epitomizes the wrongs of a patriarchal order, of which she becomes both supporter and victim. In fact, Brown explains that matrophobia occurs precisely due to the 'tacit acceptance of a patriarchal paradigm for social order'. (18)

The absence of maternal affection in Mary's life results in the absence of maternal feelings. Her incipient matrophobia includes her refusal to become a seamstress in spite of--or precisely because of--the gift that she seems to have inherited and, what is even more to the point, motherhood itself. Although, on the one hand, her premature age and her unwanted pregnancy inevitably lead to an abortion, her choice needs to be interpreted as a political stance since it still remains one of the most important issues dictating women's lives, for 'abortion controls are part of the ideology of sexuality in a capitalist patriarchy on which depend the meanings of family, state and motherhood'. (19) In this case, Mary's premature pregnancy does not provoke the otherwise expected identification with her mother. Lacking a positive model to imitate, Mary's matrophobia makes her abhor her own baby--emulating what her mother had done with her--even at the cost of trading with her body. The description of her five-month pregnancy shows how incapable she has grown of experiencing any emotional feeling:
 It was Doll who wiped the vomit from Mary's mouth with the back of
 her hand. In the end it was Doll who took the pot away to empty it
 into the gutter, but not before Mary had glimpsed what was in it.
 Just a pale shape swimming in the red; a worm, a parasite, a demon
 expelled from her body. Nothing, really; nothing that made any
 difference (p.58).

Although her first apparent move to escape from a patriarchal society in which motherhood is not a choice but an expectation will turn her barren, she will never regret this decision. Donoghue's position here is blatant. For centuries, women were supposed to be genetically predisposed to have maternal instincts. Such assumptions only helped to perpetuate the institution of motherhood. In Slammerkin, Mary makes a choice and rejects the function that society seems to have assigned to her, deconstructing the very meaning of motherhood. The normative equation of woman with mother is, thus, defied and no longer seen as defining female identity and representation.

On the other side of the mother-daughter relationship, matrophilia is facilitated by Mrs Jones, who becomes the perfect substitute mother. With an only child, several miscarriages, and some other babies who died in infancy, she 'adopts' Mary and manages to get the best out of her. Under her guidance and care, Mary learns not only to sew and embroider but also to acquire proper manners. (20) Their feelings are mutual. The fact that Mary's real father had first courted Mrs Jones, and even proposed to her before turning to her actual mother, contributes to this bond. It is easy then for Mary to toy with the possibility of being Mrs Jones's daughter and to wonder how different her life would have been in such circumstances: 'Why hadn't she been born to Jane Jones instead of Susan Saunders, it occurred to her now? She didn't want to have her mother's hands. She didn't want to be her mother's daughter [...]. Mary was indeed a hard worker and embroidered like an angel. She could almost believe she was a virgin again' (pp.240-1). Performing the role of a substitute mother, it is not difficult for Mrs Jones to be blind to Mary's real self. Even Mary's lack of menstruation, which is the consequence of her apparent sterility after her brutal abortion, is interpreted by Mrs Jones as a symbol of her own girlhood:
 To think that she'd got the belly business over and done with at
 fourteen, down in Ma Slattery's reeking cellar, but in this house
 she was considered a chit of a girl who hadn't even begun!
 Suddenly she wanted to weep.
 Deceiving the Joneses was all too simple [...].
 Decent people only see what they were expecting to see (13.242).

Succeeding at her own performance of an innocent girl, she still has to face up to another obstacle. For the first time in her life, she experiences ambivalent feelings towards a young boy, Daffy, who falls in love with her and even proposes marriage. However, being unable to believe in his genuine good intentions, she reverses gender expectations and seduces him only to confirm that there is nothing beyond the mere physical act. In this light, Helen Thompson's point appears valid when she says that 'Donoghue's work is an alternative narrative to the marriage plot'. (21) It does not come as a surprise that Mary, who has always been in control of her life, body, and freedom, is turned off by her future prospects as a wife and is afraid of following in her mother's footsteps. Marriage, which has been defined as an 'institution which traditionally provides women with a social identity', (22) would only serve to highlight obvious social and gender divisions, as well as women's subordination to men. Although she finds in Mrs Jones the affection and protection she lacked, her need for independence, her ambition, and especially her desire for power prove stronger than her need for the maternal bond. Ironically, however, in order to pay for her own freedom she will have to trade with her body, supporting the very patriarchal order from which she wants to be set free. Thus, the rejection of marriage, of her own motherhood, and of her surrogate mother go hand in hand, leaving behind a second opportunity to give up her destructive way of life.

One of the most striking aspects of the portrayal of this character is that she becomes more and more dislikeable in the course of the novel. It is not only her determination, treacheries, temper, and deceitful ambitions that define her, and the fact that she is 'restless and perverse' (p.113), but also the way she constantly lies, manipulates, and even rehearses gestures in the mirror to cheat people. At the same time, she is complex, contradictory, and essentially human, no matter how self-conscious she becomes of her ontological position in the text. In an attempt to blur the categories of reality and fiction, Mary sees herself as a fictional heroine: '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' (p.143). However, at the end of the novel, she admits that 'this was no story, but the last hour of her real life' (p.415). But confusion increases when at the very last moment a boy throws a piece of paper at her, which reads: "The Confessions and last Dying-Words of Mary Saunders', which makes her see herself again as 'a heroine in print. This was a free copy. Some scribbling hack had made it all up, every word of it' (p.416). The blurring of the categories of fact and fiction allows Donoghue to introduce a protagonist who does not wish to become the good compliant heroine of the didactic novels of the time--'an ordinary girl [...] an ordinary wife. This was the town all roads seemed to lead to. The ending to every story she'd ever read' (p.285). Although, surprisingly, Samuel Richardson's Pamela is Mary's favourite novel (p.78), (23) in what will turn out to be one of the most important lines of the novel, she tells Daffy that: 'Books are full of lies' (p.269). (24) Noticeably, the message is twofold, referring both to the development of the storyline--since appearances can surpass reality--and to the narrative strategies used to convey its meaning. For this reason, Peach has suggested that Slammerkin should be regarded not as a historical novel but as a 'historically based text', which rather than tracing history, maps it: 'In writing Mary's history from a feminist perspective, the novel is an exploration of how what we might see as fixed and defined history is, like any map, "detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification"'. (25)

The theme of motherhood has a close connection with the motif of the slammerkin, which provides the title of the novel. The term has a subtle double meaning suggested by Donoghue in a quotation that precedes the novel: 'Slammerkin, noun, eighteenth century, of unknown origin. 1. A loose gown. 2. A loose woman'. On the one hand, while Mary is in London, slammerkin means a 'loose woman', and refers to the dresses harlots wear. On the other hand, in Monmouth, Mary discovers that rich women also admired slammerkins. In this context, the term refers to a sophisticated 'loose gown'. Quite significantly, a white velvet slammerkin that Mary had been embroidering in silver thread evinces, at the end of the novel, her real sell her bad language, her bad manners, and her bad intentions. The pattern of the dress consists of apples and snakes, evoking Mary's evil nature. By implication, she is linked with Eve and the notion of a fallen womanhood. Mary's obsession with garments brings issues of identity to the fore since disguise will characterize her process of development, allowing her to cross boundaries and transcend her own limited reality. Clothing not only endows Mary with the possibility of making up alternative identities, it also fulfils her ruthless wish for power. While in London, her mentor Doll teaches her three basic rules that she never forgets and that become truths in the narration: 'Never give up your liberty', 'Clothes make the woman', and 'Clothes are the greatest lie ever told' (pp.75-7). At the same time, the redress of Mary's identity will also be conveyed through the use of alternative names. As a prostitute in London, she is called 'Miss Crab' by Doll (p.86), while in Monmouth she will be known as 'Sukie' (p.318), and, in her dreams of the day when she returns to London as a rich woman, she fancies becoming 'Lady Mary' (p.141).

To become a prostitute, Mary goes through a kind of initiation rite that involves dressing and making up for the occasion with an orange slammerkin that will speak for itself. In fact, when she looks at herself in the mirror, she sees 'the mask take shape. This wasn't her anymore; this was some vivid, fearless puppet' (p.52). Throughout the novel, masks will provide Mary with a freedom she had not known before and that she will learn to value more than anything:
 Mary was a free woman now, with more money in her pocket than she'd
 ever seen in her life before. She dressed in the brightest colours
 she could find on the stalls on Monmouth Street--pinks and purples
 and oranges--and never cared if they clashed, so long as the
 cullies kept looking. She knew herself to be wanted. She wore her
 rouged face like a carnival mask (p.60).

Therefore, being a prostitute turns out to be an act of liberation that allows Mary to sidestep the roles of daughter, mother, and wife, subverting the gender and social expectations of women. Pointedly, she maintains that she was not selling herself, but rather she 'just hired out a dress called skin' (p.70). It is also ironic that when Mary realizes that a slammerkin in Monmouth is just 'a loose sort of morning gown', she comments that: 'The harlots all wanted to dress like ladies and the ladies returned the compliment' (p.178). Mary's abuse of disguises and masks, together with her mastery in managing lies, lead to her final downfall. She starts to live a double life to such a degree that she does not know who she is any more: 'Mary's life was folded over like a hem. There was a day side and a night side, and to look at one you'd never guess the other. She wasn't too sure which Mary was the real one. It was strange, but it was how it was' (p.317).

Mary's matrophobia is grounded in her rejection of her own mother and, for this reason, she is constantly searching for an alternative mother figure. Although Mary hates her mother for not being a mother to her and also hates herself for not being the daughter her mother wanted, she longs for the 'word she wasn't meant to say anymore: Mother' (p.57). As Rich has amply explained:
 Matrophobia can be seen as a womanly splitting of the sell in the
 desire to become purged once and for all of our mother's bondage
 [...]. Our personalities seem to blur and overlap dangerously with
 our mothers; and, in a desperate attempt to know where mother ends
 and daughter begins, we perform radical surgery. (26)

Notably, Mary's mother does not appear much in the novel and is mostly seen through her daughter's eyes. At the same time, this absence does not make her invisible, since she is constantly being invoked, consciously or unconsciously, by Mary. In fact, she feels haunted by her mother and often claims to hear her 'grudging voice' (p.79) in her mind. This will impede the resolution of her matrophobia, making her unable to cut the umbilical cord that ties her to her mother. Her pain and suffering come to light during an illness in which she has a high temperature. Her delirium discloses her most hidden desires, leading her to plead with her mother to let her stay at home: 'I'll be a good girl if you'll only let me stay [...]. I'll never do it again, Mother. It was only for the ribbon' (p.369). The position of the mother, relegated to silence, can thus be interpreted as a metaphor for the voiceless position of women during such patriarchal times. Likewise, it should not pass unnoticed that the three female figures that act as mothers in the text are killed: Susan by her own daughter in the narrative, Doll through the negligence of a society that ignores immoral women, and Mrs Jones by Mary.

At the same time, the voicelessness of Mary's mother clashes with the way the rest of the female characters are portrayed. Most of them are marginal social figures--prostitutes or maids--who nevertheless are provided with their own subjectivity. This is especially applicable to the second part of the novel, in which Donoghue introduces female characters with agency. This fact is especially relevant inasmuch as it affects the way in which Mary is decentred from her own story. While in the first part of the novel, the reader apprehends reality through Mary's perspective and finds it easy to empathize with such a dramatic young character, her position in the second part is questioned by the rest of the maids in the household, who judge her more severely and make the reader more critical. In this regard, the black maid Abi, who is in fact treated as a slave, plays a significant role. This marginal figure is given agency and eventually finds freedom in London thanks to the indoctrination of Mary. Her awakening is described in the following terms: 'Sometimes Abi wished Mary Saunders had never come to the house on Inch Lane, never shaken Abi out of her long somnolence, never said words like wages, or liberty" (p.343). According to Peach, Monmouth is an 'in-between space' that allows Mary 'to step aside from her past and reinvent herself'. (27) In fact, she feels superior to the rest of the maids only because she comes from London and also to the villagers whom she regards as narrow-minded people trapped by superstitions and antiquated tales. Donoghue herself described her own creation as a 'dislikeable, bad-tempered heroine'. (28) Her cruelty, calculations, wickedness, and lack of scruples become more visible at the end of the novel and, by the same token, the reader becomes less sympathetic towards her. It is significant in this sense that she loses space in the narration since she is displaced by other salient discourses on femininity. (29)

Consequently, Slammerkin implies that motherhood becomes a determinant force in the shaping of the protagonist's life and destiny. As I have underlined in my discussion, the two settings of the novel unfold a spatial division indicating, on the one hand, differing geographical and social locations and, on the other, the symbolic viewpoints of the narration where different discourses--political, sociological, and gendered--take place. These two spaces, furthermore, offer alternative and contrasting accounts of motherhood, which range from Mary's initial feelings of matrophobia towards her real mother to the point of even symbolically killing her, to an incipient matrophilia towards a surrogate mother. This admiration turns once again to matrophobia, leading her--this time--literally to kill her mistress when her real identity is disclosed. Mary's destructive approach to motherhood, both as a daughter or as a potential parent, results in a clear need to escape from the mother bond.

Mary Sounder's story would have remained forgotten had Donoghue not decided to narrate it and bring it to the fore. Throughout the novel, Mary stands out as a woman with a distinctively powerful and assertive self who by no means wished to live the role society imposed on her, rejecting her role as daughter, mother, and wife. According to Helen Thompson, Mary and Doll die because this is 'the narrative pattern established for girls who do not conform' but, at the same time, Mrs Jones 'who marries and tries to reproduce, does not survive on her goodness'. (30) At the end of the novel, as Mary is facing execution, she prides herself on having achieved what she had always desired, 'Fame' (p.413). This declaration echoes Donoghue's intention: to immortalize the 'obscure and brutal story' (p.417) of this real woman in a tale that celebrates unconventionality, transgression, and female liberation. In this sense, a comment made in a review of Donoghue's historical collection of tales, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002) is apt: Alex Clark has affirmed that her 'writing feels less like a corrective to the official version of events than an inventive, sympathetic addition that might yet contain a subversive message'. (31) Naturally, 'tak[ing] feminism as a given', (32) the subversive message is, in this case, the recovery of a powerful assertive woman who stood up against the wrongs of a male-dominated society and who was bound to be buried by a history which has been indifferent to immoral women. Donoghue's palimpsest, reinscribed in a now gendered history, attests to her interest in rewriting and recreating transgressive female figures from the past. Through her dialogical relationship with the original source, she has deconstructed the values of that time period and has challenged received notions about womanhood and motherhood.


(1.) Maggie Humm, The Dictionary of Feminist Theory (New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p.74. The research for this essay has been financed by the Spanish Ministry of Education (DGICYT, research project HUM2007-63296/FILO).

(2.) Although Donoghue is a writer whose main area of interest rests on Irish topics and on the intersection between sexuality and nationality, Slammerkin seems to have marked the beginning of another direction in her fiction. This novel was followed by three other historical narratives: the collection of stories and tales The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (London: Virago, 2002), which revises and rewrites historical records centred on odd happenings and marginal matters concerning women; her novel Life Mask (London: Virago, 2004), which depicts a lesbian and straight love triangle also set in the eighteenth century; and her most recent fiction, The Sealed Letter (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2008) about a scandal in Britain in the late nineteenth century. She has also published scholarly works such as Passions between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (London: Scarlet Press, 1993), What Sappho Would Have Said: Four Centuries of Love Poems Between Women (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1997), and a study of two Victorian lesbian women poets, We are Michael Field (London: Absolute Press, 1998).

(3.) Since the seminal publication of Nancy J. Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), the bibliography on the subject has grown. See, for instance, the following works: Judith Arcana, Our Mothers' Daughters (London: The Women's Press, 1979), Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon, 1988), Christiane Olivier, Jocasta's Children: The Imprint of the Mother (London: Routledge, 1989), and Shelley Phillips, Beyond the Myths: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Psychology, History, Literature and Everyday Life (London: Penguin, 1991).

(4.) See in this respect Anne Owens Weekes's article, 'Figuring the Mother in Contemporary Irish Fiction', in Contemporary Irish Fiction: Themes, Tropes, Theories, edited by Liam Harte and Michael Parker (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan, 2000), pp.100-124 (p.100), which considers this theme to be 'ubiquitous in Irish culture, from sentimental popular songs to the Catholic Church's veneration of the Virgin Mary'. See also Auxiliadora Perez Vides's study on lone mothers, Solo elias: familia y feminismo en la novela irlandesa contemporanea (Huelva: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad, 2003).

(5.) Janneke van Mens-Verhulst, 'Introduction', in Daughtering and Mothering: Female Subjectivity Reanalysed, edited by Janneke van Mens-Verhulst, Karlein Schreurs, and Liesbeth Woertman (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp.xiii-xix (p.xix).

(6.) See the following studies: The (M)Other Tongue, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), Julia Kristeva, 'Stabat Mater', in The Kristeva Reader, edited by Toril Moi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp.160-86; Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), Susan Greenfield, and Carol Barash, Inventing Maternity: Politics, Science, and Literature, 1650-1865 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), Mother Troubles: Rethinking the Contemporary Maternal Dilemma, edited by Julia Hannisber, and Sara Ruddick (Boston: Beacon, 1999), Mothers and Daughters: Connection, Empowerment and Transformation, edited by Andrea O'Reilly, and Sharon Abbey (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), Julie A. Wallbank, Challenging Motherhood(s) (Marlow: Prentice-Hall, 2001), and D. Lynn O'Brien Hallstein, 'Matrophobic Sisters and Daughters: The Rhetorical Consequences of Matrophobia in Contemporary White Feminist Analyses of Maternity', Women's Studies 36.4 (June 2007), 269-96.

(7.) Isabel Z. Brown, 'From Matrophobia to Motherline: Marisela Rizik's Of Forgotten Times', Caribe: Revista de cultura y literatura 9.1 (2006), 109-22 (p.110).

(8.) Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1986), p.235.

(9.) Adrienne Rich, p.235.

(10.) Isabel Z. Brown, p.115.

(11.) Emma Donoghue, Slammerkin (London: Virago, 2000), p.294. All future references will be noted in parentheses.

(12.) Her encounter with this prostitute, who moulds her, is a clear tribute to Henry Higgins, the professor of phonetics in Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, who claims to have turned a flower girl into a lady in six months.

(13.) See the following reviews: Karen T. Bilton, Review of 'Slammerkin', Library Journal 126.10 (1 June 2001), p.212; Michelle Kaske, 'New Historical Fiction', The Booklist 97.15 (1 April 2001), p.1451; Gabriella Stem, Review of "Slammerkin" The Wall Street Journal (22 June 2001), p.12. There are some exceptions to this interpretation. Laura Jamison, for instance, only blames Mary for her 'addiction to fancy fabrics'. See 'The Joy of Silks', New York Times Book Review, 8 July 2001, p.23.

(14.) Linden Peach, The Contemporary Irish Novel: Critical Readings (Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.78-9.

(15.) According to Kathryn Conrad: 'Resistance means finding new ways to approach narrative, rather than repeating the narrowly focused, carefully contained narratives that ultimately reproduce hierarchies of "importance".' See 'Occupied Country: The Negotiation of Lesbianism in Irish Feminist Narrative', Eire-Ireland 31.1-2 (Spring/ Summer 1996), 123-36.

(16.) No matter how participatory fathers might be in the education of their daughters, according to Shelley Phillips, 'The fact that the daughter is the same sex as her prime nurturer permits a sense of security, continuity and intimacy as the daughter's self concept develops. This makes for good self-esteem and a special closeness between mothers and daughters in early and primary school childhood' (p.45).

(17.) It is significant that 'by the eighteenth century, embroidery and femininity were so fused that the connection was regarded as innate' (Shelley Philips, p.283).

(18.) Isabel Z. Brown, p.110.

(19.) Maggie Humm, p.1.

(20.) As Phillips notes, during these times 'teaching a daughter to embroider became an accepted and traditionalised symbol of the unity of mothers and daughters and, as such, is recorded in the paintings and literature of the time' (Shelley Phillips, p.283).

(21.) Helen Thompson, 'Emma Donoghue: Interview', in Irish Women Writers Speak Out: Voices from the Field, edited by Caitriona Moloney and Helen Thompson (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2003), p.169.

(22.) Maggie Humm, p.127.

(23.) It is interesting to note that Richardson is also one of Mrs Jones's favourite writers, to the point of her having named each of her sons and daughters after the protagonists of his novels. However, it is more significant that her only surviving daughter, Henrietta--'Hetta'--bears the name of the protagonist of a feminist novel, Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (p.164).

(24.) This line is repeated again at the end of the novel, when Mary is approaching death (p.416).

(25.) Linden Peach, pp.76-7.

(26.) Adrienne Rich, p.236.

(27.) Linden Peach, p.79.

(28.) Quoted in Helen Thompson, p.178.

(29.) However, the characterization of female figures contrasts with the way in which males are depicted. They are seen as mere types, representing certain kinds of values within a strict patriarchal society. It is interesting to note, in this respect, that Donoghue herself admitted in an interview to being in the process of finding 'new roles for men' for although they were not the 'villains' in her novels neither were they truly heroes. See Stacia L. Bensyl, 'Swings and Roundabouts: An Interview with Emma Donoghue', Irish Studies Review 8.1 (2000), 73-8 (p.77). For Donoghue, Daffy is an exception since he appears as 'a self-educated Welsh footman [...] who is meant to stand for Enlightenment values of tolerance and rationality'. See Helen Thomson, p.178.

(30.) Helen Thompson, p.170.

(31.) Alex Clark, 'Rescued from History', Times Literary Supplement (7 June 2002), p.22.

(32.) Ann Owens Weekes, 'Foreword', in Irish Women Writers Speak Out: Voices from the Field, p.xi.
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Author:Ladron, Marisol Morales
Publication:Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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