Written by Emma Donoghue
Review by Margaret Barr

The title is drawn from 18th century slang for a loose dress, and by extension the loose woman who wears it.  Inspired by the few known facts of Mary Saunders’s unfortunate existence, this grim tale of personal destruction is gripping in its detail and intensity.

Attracted to beauty, young Mary craves a poppy-colored ribbon and loses her virtue to get it.  Falling pregnant, disowned by her family, at age fourteen she finds herself on the streets of an unfriendly city.  Throwing in her lot with a jaded prostitute, she rids herself of the unborn child and embraces the life of a slammerkin.  Clad in the garish colors of her trade, she discovers that “a bit of loveliness, a bit of luck” is all she needs to prosper.  Eventually leaving London, she obtains a position as servant and seamstress in a tailor’s household and tries to adjust to her new life, but without quite vanquishing her fondness for the old one. Regrettably, the past life she misses so much eventually catches up with her.

Mary’s self-awareness lends pathos and irony to her history.  This is a superior and incisive work of historical fiction, though not recommended for the faint of heart.