Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by Nuala O’Connor (Nuala Ni Chonchur)
2015, ISBN 978-0-14-312675-1, $16
A glimpse of an historical figure from the vantage point of a servant always adds to our understanding of the notable person and his or her era. Irish author Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily is a carefully researched novel, presented in the first person by two co-protagonists, each in turn, each in her own unique voice.
One of the two main characters is American poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) whose work was largely unpublished until after her death. A complete and unaltered collection would not be published until 1955.) The other protagonist is the fictional Ada Concannon, a young Irish immigrant who finds employment in the Dickinson household in Amherst, Massachusetts in the late 1860s. Despite their class and age differences and their unique personal problems, Ada and Emily become supportive friends.
In real life, the Dickinson family employed two Irish women. The first, Margaret O’Brien, mentioned as the novel opens, worked for them for nine years before leaving in 1866 to get married. In 1869, another Irish immigrant, Margaret Maher, was hired. Author Nuala O’Connor invented Ada and made her the cousin of the real Margaret Maher.
The novel shows Emily Dickinson’s struggle for the privacy necessary to nurture her soul and pursue her writing. Her mother and sister-in-law try to convince her to socialize more, but she says: “If I gad about too much I will write nothing… I was not made right for the world; it does not welcome me or my conversation as it does others… My words are best enjoyed by those who know me.”
O’Connor portrays Emily sensitively and sympathetically. Writers will identify with her need for peace and solitude, co-existing with a yearning for understanding and closeness. Emily’s girlhood friend, Susan Gilbert, who married her brother, Austen, was her closest friend. Susan read Emily’s poems and Emily wrote her over three hundred letters, although they lived within walking distance of each other’s homes. (Emily lived with her parents and sister Lavinia at the “Homestead.”)
Indeed, there are strong hints in the novel that Emily’s feeling for Susan is more than mere friendship, though it is unclear whether those feelings were reciprocated. In one scene, Ada enters a room and finds Emily and Susan embracing, with Emily whispering “forevermore” with her head on Susan’s shoulder. Elsewhere, Emily tells Susan, “I love you from a distance because I have no choice,” but when she places her hand over Susan’s, Susan says, “The maid might see it. Or Austen.” In response to Emily’s demands for attention and affection, Susan explains that she has a duty to her children, her home, to Austen and their friends. When Susan makes disparaging remarks about the new Irish maid, Emily realizes that they are not of one mind on all subjects.
Particularly interesting are O’Connor’s hints of marital discord between Susan and Austen. In 1890, four years after Emily’s death, editors Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Todd Loomis brought out a collection of some of her poems. Loomis, the wife of an Amherst College faculty member, was Austen Dickinson’s lover. By having Susan confide in Emily about some marital issues, O’Connor makes Susan an intriguing, complex character and foreshadows what lies ahead.
As the novel begins, Emily needs a new friend. One of her pleasures is baking, and it is in the kitchen that she and Ada first bond. Ada left Ireland because she disliked her employer, believed she was “made for more than the scullery” and saw America as opportunity. She lives with her aunt and uncle in Amherst, but when her aunt dies, her cousin insists that it is improper for a single girl to live under the same roof as a man, even with a middle-aged uncle whose attitude toward her is paternal. Grieving for her aunt and alone in a strange land, Ada is grateful when Emily arranges for her to live in the Dickinson home.
Ada attracts the attention of two young men, one decent and hard-working, the other violent and predatory. When the latter one harms Ada, Emily leaves her comfort zone to find help for her friend, but comes up against Austen’s anti-Irish prejudice, class snobbery and “blame-the-victim” attitude.
Miss Emily ends with both protagonists in charge of their destinies, though Ada’s future is more promising than Emily’s. In a June 2105 interview in The Compulsive Reader, O’Connor asserts that Emily was not the cheerless, angst-ridden recluse of legend, and certainly her Emily is a passionate woman, warm to those in her small circle.
O’Connor concludes by having Ada recall an image from one of Emily’s poems. The poem is not quoted in the novel, but begins:
Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops – at all.
Ada expands upon the metaphor, showing how unforgettable Emily’s work is, when she says: “It may be small and bald at first, but then it gathers its feathers to itself and flies on robust wings.”
O’Connor’s Miss Emily is a work of art that seems destined to “fly on robust wings.”
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