Last year, I read the novel Amherst, which was mostly about Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin but depicted Emily hazily. The excellent biography White Heat, about Emily’s relationship with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, portrayed her more fully but she still seemed hard to grasp. The Irish poet Nuala O’Connor presents a more fully realized character—Emily in her middle age*—through her relationship to a (fictional) Irish maid.
Ada Concannon is a good worker but a bit too much of a free spirit for her Irish employer. She arrives at work one too many times smelling of the River Liffey, in which she has bathed on the way to work. She is demoted to scullery maid, and her mother decides there is nothing to be done but send her to America to find better opportunities.
Ada has good luck at first. She finds a pleasant home with her aunt and uncle in Amherst, and they soon learn that the Dickinsons need a new maid.
Emily Dickinson has insisted that her parents get a new maid after the old one left, because she is spending all her time on housework and none on writing. Although she loves baking, she is not really interested in most of the other chores. Other than poetry, her main interest is in her warm relationship with her sister-in-law, Sue, but Sue is busy with her family. When Ada arrives, Emily becomes fascinated by the small, neat maid.
Ada soon finds she is being courted. Daniel Byrne shows he likes her right away, and she is attracted to him. His boss’s son, Patrick Crohan, is also trying to get her attention, but she dislikes him.
When Ada finds she needs help, she has only Emily to turn to. Emily, in her turn, goes to her brother Austin.
This novel is beautifully written, sometimes poetically, with delightfully old-fashioned chapter titles. It explores the relationship between two women across a class divide. The two main characters are interesting and convincingly developed. Austin is also developed more fully than the others, but is not as likable.
I enjoyed this novel, which made me feel as if I understood O’Connor’s fictional Dickinson as a person. Although Dickinson at 16 was just beginning to develop some of the quirks she becomes well known for, O’Conner her thinking believable.
*I originally said that Emily was 16, but Caroline of Rosemary and Reading Glasses pointed out that I was mistaken. I thought I saw a reference to her age, but perhaps I got the age reference mixed up with one about Ada. My e-copy is expired, so I couldn’t go back and look it up.