I had never heard of the historical phenomenon of the Magdalen laundries until I read the plot synopsis for The Magdalen Girls. Learning about them was equal parts fascinating and horrifying. They were essentially penitentiary work-houses for women who were deemed by society to be ‘fallen’ or ‘sinners’ for a variety of reasons that today seem baffling. The worst ‘sin’ of many of the women who were sent by their families to be relegated to these institutions was often just to have had a child out of wedlock.
Throughout both distant and more recent history, women across the globe have often been hidden in secreted locations when finding themselves unexpectedly pregnant. The difference with the Magdalen laundries is primarily that the women were forced to work in extremely hard conditions for their keep, while being condemned through bodily mortification bordering on torture for their ‘sins’.
V.S. Alexander brings this troubling chapter of history to life in The Magdalen Girls through three very relatable young characters that find themselves in the Sister of the Holy Redemption convent for different reasons. The book is both an interesting historical commentary on the laundries, as well as a novel about the more universal themes of friendship, right and wrong, identity and personal freedom.