If you have ever wondered about the reclusive life of Emily Dickinson, you will enjoy this biographical novel about Dickinson and the accompanying fictional coming-of-age story about her young Irish maid, Ada Concannon. Reading Miss Emily is a great way to imagine the poet’s domestic life during the 1860s and understand why she chose to isolate herself from the outside world.
The story begins when Ada arrives from Ireland and begins working at the Dickinson home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Emily and her sister Lavinia, at this point grown women, are living with their parents. Their married brother, Austin, lives across the walk with his wife Susan and their two young children. The family lives in a tight dynamic in which Emily’s solitary ways are both accepted and enabled. Through descriptions and conversation, O’Connor recreates these relationships, especially Emily’s close and intense bond with Susan, a friendship that has long been scrutinized by those who have studied the poet.
O’Connor paints a pleasant domestic scene, with additional focus on the developing friendship between Emily and Ada, forged in the kitchen while they bake. The kitchen is the place where Emily seems most sociable and open, though it is upstairs in her room where she is most comfortable and where her poetry comes to life. But days at the Dickinson house are not always happy. Emily’s mother is often bedridden and she’s hard on Emily. Austin is cold and demanding, so unlike his personality as a child and playmate. In addition, Emily suffers bouts of melancholy and withdraws from the family, but the family views these ups and downs as the normal patterns of their lives.
In Ada’s story, all seems well when a handsome Irishman named Daniel Byrne begins to court Ada, but the joy of their young love faces ruin when an aggressive and violent rival interferes. As the stories and characters begin to overlap, Emily makes a decision that changes everything. The reader feels Ada’s terror and disgrace as she faces an uncertain future. It is Emily’s ability to see what is right that makes all the difference.
O’Connor shows the human side of a poet whose words have been studied, yet whose personality has remained a puzzle. And Emily’s words and thoughts in the story fit very well with the tone of her poetry, samples of which O’Connor includes in the story. I can just imagine the real Emily Dickinson saying to Susan:
But it is not only words that keep me here, I know that. It is a fact that if I do not leave the house, I cannot lose myself; I am better contained in my home, looking inward. This is where I best function.
O’Connor includes beautiful descriptions of Ada’s home in Ireland and references to Irish customs and phrases. These details enhance this lovely gem of a book, a seemingly simple story, with larger ideas and sentiments. Check it out!
Nuala O’Connor is a notable author from Ireland, where she writes under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir. She has won many fiction awards. Her short story “Peach” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature for Nude, a collection of short stories. She lives in East Galway with her husband and three children. You can visit her website at: nualanichonchuir.com.
Thanks for visiting – come back soon!