Wearing slammerkins and dreaming: Sex work in fiction

64be395da850ff563440fc4da91994b8In Slammerkin, Mary is a street prostitute in mid-18th-century London. Thrown out of her dismal basement home by a mother absolute in condemnation of Mary’s pregnancy at 14, she meets a friendly whore, Doll, who initiates her into street trading. Mary is in love with nice clothing and comes to see there is no hard line between the Good Woman and the Bad.

2505937ea8c9c8e6aebb554012fa4295[Her mother] Susan Digot wouldn’t likely recognise her child-as-was, all gussied up in a flowered jacket-bodice and a worn silk skirt buoyed out by a pair of improvers. Mary looked like a woman of the town, these days. She smelled different, even, with the mouth-watering lemony reek of Hungary water.

What a fool Susan Digot had been, to think everyone in gold braid her better, and the wider the skirt, the higher the breeding! Mary had seen commoners walk as queens on the stage in Drury Lane. Doll was opening Mary’s eyes to all life’s shortcuts, back alleys, gaps in the walls. In these uncertain times, Mary was learning, a duchess was sometimes just a stroller who’d picked the right honourable cully.

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds

In a four-story house in Golden Square lived a lady who’d once been known in the trade as Angel Arse. On the corner of Hyde Park was a new mansion the Duke of Kingston was building for Miss Chudleigh, who’d been his mistress for a dozen years already and he still hadn’t tired of her. The famous Kitty Fisher was said to be about to swap all her lordly lovers for a rich husband from the Lower House. A bit of loveliness, a bit of luck; that’s all a girl needed.

Richardson_pamela_1741On long bright evenings, Mary sat on the grass in Lamb’s Conduit Fields behind Holborn and watched the courting couples meander by. The air was full of the sounds of leisure: the archers’ arrows hitting the target, the click of balls on the bowling green, or the distant roars of a dogfight or wrestling match. She was reading again for the first time since school. She bought crack-backed romances and memorised all the long words, in case she’d ever need them. The History of Pamela Andrews was her favourite. The crafty wench, to fend off her master all those times, then squeeze a proposal of marriage out of him in the end! She’d swapped her maid’s apron for bridal satins and ended up as good a lady as any other, hadn’t she? It all went to show, Mary thought. If a girl had her wits about her, nowadays, she could rise as high as she wanted, as sure as cream through the milk. Anything was possible. – Slammerkin p247 (Emma Donoghue 2002)

About Mary’s interpretation of Pamela – well! Astute doesn’t begin to describe it. No wonder social blowhards began to condemn the reading of novels by gels.

The word for the loose gown, a slammerkin, came to be used for the women who wore them. On the word slammerkin, from one etymological dictionary:

There is a group of North Sea Germanic words in sl- that mean “sloppy,” and also “slovenly woman” and, less often, “slovenly man,” and that tend to evolve toward “woman of loose morals.” Compare slattern, also English dialectal slummock “a dirty, untidy, or slovenly person” (1861), variant of slammacks “slatternly woman,” said to be from slam “ill-shaped, shambling fellow.” Also slammakin (from 1756 as a type of loose gown; 1785 as “slovenly female,” 1727 as a character name in Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera”), with variants slamkin, slammerkin. Also possibly related are Middle Dutch slore “a sluttish woman,” Dutch slomp, German schlampe “a slattern.”

This knowledge came to me during regular posts/tweets entitled Today’s word for a Bad Woman. There are way way way too many of them, and almost any negative meaning deteriorates sooner or later into promiscuity and prostitution – beginning with sl- or not.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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