Day 774: Miss Emily

Cover for Miss EmilyLast 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.

link to NetgalleyThis 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.

Related Posts

Amherst

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Invention of Wings

Day 630: Amherst

Cover for AmherstAmherst combines the tale of two love stories, one actual and one fictional. The historical actual affair was between Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and the much younger Mabel Loomis Todd. The modern fictional affair is between Alice Dickinson, working on a screenplay about the affair, and Nick Crocker, an older academic who gives her a place to stay in Amherst while she does her research. All of these people are married to others except Alice.

Emily Dickinson herself is a minor character in the 19th century story. Her brother and Todd used her house for their trysts—a known fact—and there is some debate about how much exposure Emily herself had to sex. Nicholson theorizes a woman listening at doors and a sort of free love attitude by everyone except Sue, Austin’s wife. I found it all a little sordid and probably unlikely.

All of this might be interesting to a reader of literature if Nicholson had spent any time with these characters before thrusting them into their love affairs. We don’t know any of them, so we don’t care about them (alas, too often my complaint lately).

Worse, to me, are the liberties or omissions at the end of the novel. Nicholson gives Todd full credit for her efforts to publish Dickinson’s poetry after her death, even having her spend hours convincing Thomas Wentworth Higginson of the value of Emily’s work. He doesn’t mention that Higginson was already very familiar with Dickinson’s poetry, having been in correspondence with her for 20 years before her death, as related in the excellent biography White Heat. (Although on the surface Nicholson seems unfamiliar with or ignores some of the content of the biography, he interestingly uses the phrase “white heat” to refer to the affair between Todd and Austin Dickinson.) Higginson was already convinced of the worth of Dickinson’s poetry—he just had doubts about how publishable it was. In fact, he almost certainly met Dickinson, which Todd never did.

The other historical fact Nicholson completely glosses over is the one the world of literature finds most shocking—that Todd and Higginson edited Dickinson’s poetry, changing capitalization and spelling but even rewriting some of the passages.

http://www.netgalley.comThe lovers are not really likable, in fact or fiction. Austin Dickinson actually consummated his affair with Todd while his wife was grieving the recent death of their young son. Mabel comes off everywhere as self-centered, and she fought with the Dickinson’s over Emily’s legacy as much as she ensured it.

The two modern lovers are just not interesting, really more of a footnote to the historical section, and I found Nick to be extremely manipulative. The novel also employs that overused trope of having Alice find out immediately in a way that is too crass to be believable that Nick has a reputation as a seducer. Note to minor characters: these warnings never work.

It’s hard to tell whether Nicholson meant these stories to be romantic, although he states in an interview that he is interested in exploring love. I did not find the stories romantic, either one of them. I also did not feel they particularly explored the theme of love. I was not at all drawn in by this novel, neither by the historical nor by the modern story.

Day 210: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Cover for White HeatBest Book of the Week!

White Heat is an unusual biography that focuses on the friendship between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The book is unusual because so little is known of the daily life of Dickinson and much is known of that of Higginson. Brenda Wineapple has pieced together the story of their relationship from what is left of letters (Higginson’s to Dickinson were destroyed with much of Dickinson’s correspondence, but there are letters to others) and from poems sent to Higginson by Dickinson. Wineapple is the author of an admired biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Their relationship was almost entirely in letters. By the time they began their correspondence, Higginson was a well-known writer of essays on nature and politics but was even better known as an ardent and radical abolitionist and advocate of women’s suffrage. He ran guns to Kansas during the free soil days and helped encourage many women poets and got them published. Later, he formed the first African-American regiment in the Civil War. On the other hand, Dickinson had published one or two poems and frankly didn’t seem much interested in publishing more, but preferred to send them off to friends. She remained obscure and unknown, in her later years not even leaving the grounds of her father’s house in Amherst.

Dickinson initiated the correspondence by sending Higginson a flattering letter containing a few poems and asking him to be her preceptor–to tell her if her poems “sing” and to give her advice. Of course, she knew her poems sang and apparently had no intention of taking his advice, so it can be assumed that she wrote hoping to start a correspondence.

Although Higginson has been criticized as too conservative in his poetic tastes and as a bungler for his role in Dickinson’s legacy, part of Wineapple’s purpose is to rehabilitate his reputation, for he was in his own time a brave man of principle whose poetic instincts far surpassed his own abilities as a writer. He found Dickinson’s poetry both shocking in its unconventionality, especially of form, and breathtaking in its beauty.

The two remained friends for the rest of Dickinson’s life, although they only actually met twice. Their letters were sometimes flirtatious, but Wineapple convincingly suggests that most likely neither of them had any intentions beyond friendship and esteem. Higginson was married to a lifelong invalid and seemed to be too upright to consider the idea of dalliance. When his wife Mary died, he shortly remarried a younger woman in the hopes of finally having a family. Later, Dickinson became enamored with and probably engaged to a much older man who unfortunately died.

One purpose of Wineapple’s book is to show what actually happened to Dickinson’s poems after her death, when they were published in two volumes in an edited form, with grammatical, punctuation, and even wording changes by Higginson and Mabel Todd. Higginson has been excoriated for this, but Wineapple suggests that Todd did most of the editing, some of which Higginson strenuously objected to. Certainly Todd alone released a third volume of poetry that was even more heavily edited. Higginson seemed unaware that Todd was handling Dickinson’s poems (with her sister’s permission) as an act of both self-aggrandisement and of petty revenge against Sue Dickinson, Emily’s good friend and sister-in-law, and the wife of Todd’s lover.

Wineapple’s biography is engrossing and occasionally poetic in its own right. It is an excellent analysis of this unusual friendship.