Sometimes I feel that your novel Miss Emily (2015) is haunted by the ghost of something – a bird? – it distractedly let slip out of its realm of possibilities.
It centers around the relationship between the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson and a fictional Irish housemaid named Ada Concannon. The story is set during the 1860s, at the Homestead, the poet’s family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. The chapters are short and lyrical, told in two voices: the first-person accounts alternate, chapter by chapter, between Emily and Ada. As the story opens, we meet the seventeen-year-old Ada, a vivacious and superstitious Irish girl, who is the eldest of seven daughters from the village of Tigoora, in Dublin. She is about to leave Ireland and emigrate to the United States, where her aunt and uncle live.
Once there, she finds a job as maid and cook at the Dickinson household. They are a family of four: the spinster sisters Emily and Lavinia, and their parents. When Ada lands in the household, the place is in disarray, due to the departure of their previous Irish maid. Emily, in her late-thirties, is seen as an eccentric by the local people: she refuses to marry, rarely ventures outside her home, avoids going to church, and insists in dressing only in white. To top it all, Emily disregards domestic chores and social obligations, and dedicates herself wholly to her writing – an occupation deemed to be scandalous if undertaken by a woman.
Both Emily and Ada are outsiders in their time and place: Ada, as a working-class Irish immigrant, not only suffers prejudice on account of her class and origin, but also because of her inappropriate, somewhat petulant manners, compared to the uptight New England manners at the time; Emily, as an upper-class woman, flouts convention by refusing to marry. Both of them have set themselves to live their lives in their own terms: Ada, by fleeing the restraints of family and lack of opportunity; Emily, by retreating from polite society and family expectations, and devoting all her energy to her writing.
Inevitably, these two unconventional women form a bond. Their common ground is their shared love for baking. Slowly but steadily, their friendship grows across the boundaries of class, birth and educational background. Moreover, their unconventional friendship serves you as an artifice to enact Emily’s determination to defy the prejudices of her class and time. By creating Ada as Emily’s kindred spirit, you have the means both to delve into the poet’s personality and to develop a plot around her.
Ada acts almost like a magnifying glass to your reading of Emily Dickinson. This artifice brings to the front what you seem to consider the poet’s main features: her defiance, her unconventionality, her inner determination, and her devout affections. The poet seems to have identified something of herself in her maid: Emily is charmed not only by Ada’s free-spirited, adventurous nature, but also by her use of language, rich in Irish sayings, “spinning a narrative around every small thing.” Both Emily’s first person narration and Ada’s voice carry pieces of the poet’s poems and letters, expanding over her preferred themes and metaphors.
Ada is not only a source of poetic inspiration for Emily in the novel. She plays many roles in your book: as an artifice to discuss class division, discrimination, gender roles and sexual harassment; as an artifice to expand upon your reading of Emily’s personality; as a means to weave in the narration elements of the poet’s writing, hinting upon the shared domestic experience they may have been borrowed from.
I also find illuminating the use of Emily’s first person narration as a means to convey your personal interpretation of some of her writing. “Each dash I create is a weight, a pause, a question” – is that how you read her use of dashes? “Oh chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words! I love to use the pretty ones like blades and the ugly ones to console. I use dark ones to illuminate and bright ones to mourn. And, when I feel as if a tomahawk has scalped me, I know it is poetry then and I leave it be” – is that how you read her choice of words? I think yours was a clever way to explore Dickinson’s poetry in an indirect way, in the poets own fictional voice, and without being didactic nor imposing.
I particularly like the scene where Emily decides to dress only in white. It is a foggy day, and the world outside her window is covered in white, but she knows that the sun will eventually break through this blank curtain. Her maid comes in with freshly-washed dresses, and the idea suddenly and quietly comes to Emily’s mind: “From now on I shall only wear white”, she says. The following dialogue between the poet and her maid is humorously split into two perspectives: while Ada thinks they are talking about clothes, and immediately retorts that white dresses are easier to clean, and while Emily manages to give answers that fit that perspective, the poet is in fact talking about something much more abstract (“My very whiteness will be my muse”). It’s a moment both utterly domestic and transcendental, a moment of artistic epiphany translated into a small decision. It reads like the foundation of Emily’s poetic vocation, as if she had finally decided to wear her own skin. Like turning a page, or turning herself into a blank page. “Fog and snow and blank paper – these things seduce me”
Your Emily gathers pieces of what we know about her – her love of baking, her habit of writing in scraps of papers, her love of gardening, her herbarium, her strange sense of humour – and rearranges it in a personal way, which is, in turn, magnified by her fictional relation to Ada. By showing us Emily through Ada’s eyes, your interpretation of the poet’s eccentricities can be illuminating: they are artistic efforts to free herself from convention and to pursue the heavy demands of her craft and of her imagination. Albeit rarely venturing outside her home, Emily is constantly venturing outside her comfort zone in her art.
Ada was a clever artifice up to a point, though. The climax of your novel, for me, was the scene where Ada caught by chance Emily and Susan Gilbert – her girlhood friend, who had married her brother, Austin – in an intimate embrace. “I love you from a distance because I have no choice,” Emily had said to Sue. This scene and this relationship were, for me, the turning point of your book. From this point on, it could have taken a path very different from the one you chose. Ada could have been the artifice through which you could have explored Emily’s relation to Sue, and the social responses to that. It would have been original, and it would have been brave.
Instead, from this point on, you turn away from this scene, and push the reader to a tragedy involving Ada and a man she had fallen in love with. The book takes on a mellow, dramatic tone, calculated to evoke sadness in the reader. The scene witnessed by Ada is carefully hidden behind her own drama. Sue is carefully put aside, and disappears. The end is rushed, as if we were thrown away from the very scene we wanted to know more about. The story takes an artificial tone, and is enveloped in a predictable narrative arc.
And that’s a shame. To me, it felt like the clever artifice of Ada had not been taken to its limits – and instead, had turned into the book’s very Achilles’ heel. As much as I have enjoyed many aspects of your novel, for me it will always be haunted by the shadow of what it could have been. An elusive ghost – a thing with feathers? – darting away from the page, impossible to be caged in again.
“‘From now on I shall only wear white,’ I say. I do not know where this sentence – this decision – has descended from. It is true that I love white – my favourite dress is a snowy white wrapper with mother-of-pearl buttons and a pocket; I feel such ease in it, such freedom. (…) From now on I shall be candle-white. Dove-, bread-, swan-, shroud-, ice-, extraordinarily-white. I shall be blanched, bleached and bloodless to look at; my very whiteness will be my mark. But inside, of course, I will roar and soar and flash with colour.” – Nuala O’ Connor, Miss Emily
“And why do I write? I ask myself daily, for the answer differs at every dawn, at every midnight. I write I feel to grasp at truth. The truth is so often cloaked in misleading speech. Sometimes I let words fall carelessly from my lips when I am with people, but alone I make them settle carefully onto paper.” – Nuala O’ Connor, Miss Emily
“For now I need the solace of words. Words bracket silence. That quiet gives propulsion to the words and all that they say. Words smoulder, they catch fire, they are volcanic eruptions, waiting to explode. I like to start small. With the fewest words I can manage. If the words run away, I trip them up and pull them back – they are elastic. If they do not cooperate, I obliterate them.” – Nuala O’ Connor, Miss Emily
About the book
- Penguin Books, 2015, 256 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 3 stars
- This book was read for Reading Ireland Month