While we are trying for others, power of life comes back, very faint at first, life the new bird, but by and by it has wings.
Emily Dickinson, Letters of Emily Dickinson
I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Nuala O’Connor’s new book Miss Emily at the Gutter Book Shop in Dublin last month.
Miss Emily is her third novel, following on from You and The Closet of Savage Mementoes and depicts the fictional relationship between the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid Ada Concannon in 1860s. During this time, Dickinson famously rarely left her house in Amherst, dressed all in white and wrote most of the poetry that would be published after her death. Told in dual voices, the relationship between the reclusive poet and her bright, talkative maid is teased out as they bond over baking and domestic chores with an attention to small detail that feels appropriate for a book set almost entirely in one house.
In alternating chapters we explore the forging of a female friendship across class and background. Despite her family’s disdain for their closeness, Emily sees something of herself in Ada. Both are strong and independent in their choices, yet both are bound by the expectations of society and their place within it. Emily is at liberty to write all day while Ada is in service, but likewise, Ada is free to go to the circus when it comes to town, while Emily could not do something so inappropriate, as much as she would like. Yet both these women have also made life choices on their own terms. Feeling constrained in Ireland, Ada emigrates on her own, barely out of her teens. Emily, feeling constrained by polite society and the expectation upon her to marry and have a family, retreats from that society to write her beloved poems.
I do not wish for travel or brave new lands, only a house surrounded by a sprawling orchard that holds orioles and bluebirds that trill for my ears alone; a cosy home with a kitchen uncluttered by others. I do not desire a man or babes; a husband would demand too much, I fear, of my time, or my very self.
While the chapters alternate between Ada and Emily, experiences and thoughts overlap giving a depth and understanding to both their characters. By showing us Emily through Ada’s eyes and through her own thoughts, O’Connor questions the myth of Emily as the mad woman in the attic, shutting out the world to nothing but words.
The woman behind the words comes to the fore, a woman who loved literature and baking, loved her family, had a sweet tooth and was a devout friend. The depth of her empathy emerges as Ada faces a trauma that threatens her new life in America and what becomes clear is that both these women transcend the norms expected of them in an honest and true manner.
But convention never has been, and never will be, my first choice. I have chosen not to live as woman is supposed to live. The choice is mine…
There is an attention to detail of the customs and language of the time and the book contains some beautiful, lyrical prose. Dried pears are ‘silenced yellow tongues’ while a good man has ‘kindness…as rich as yolk in him’ while the descriptions of cooking and baking are rich and vivid. Like Emily, we see the poetry in the everyday. The passages about the process of writing are also intriguing as O’Connor deftly captures Emily’s overwhelming need to write and to write often.
Words lie in me like water in a riddle’s well. They tempt me, like nothing else. Not man, not God….Yes, words tempt and tease me and they send me teetering forward.
Both Ada and Emily are vividly conveyed, their voices alive and true. This tale may be fictional, but it still adds something to the history of Emily and her ‘vital, immortal words’. Her famous choice to not leave her home and to wear white are given context and understanding and appear more logical than unusual as Emily pares down her life to what she deems essential. O’Connor beautifully captures this decision by Emily in a passage echoing her poetic use of the dash;
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.
O’Connor success here is to show the reader the flashes of colour beneath the white, to capture the spirit of Emily Dickinson, without relying heavily on her poems or letters, rather by using their essence and spirit. Although it is undoubtedly an historical novel, it reads more as an ode to an unlikely friendship between two very different women, women who know their own mind and understand where home is for them and what strength they need to attain it.
I will be in conversation with Nuala O’Connor about this wonderful novel at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on 25th November 2015 which I am very much looking forward to and you can book tickets here.
I am also giving away a signed copy of Miss Emily to readers of my blog. To be in with a chance to win, simply comment below or share this post on Twitter. Competition is open world-wide and will close on Saturday 19th September at 6pm when I will draw a winner with Random Picker. Good luck!