I have always had a fascination with Emily Dickinson: her secluded spinsterhood, her white clothes, the simplicity of her poems. But when I was asked to review a novel about her, I had reservations. I’ve read several novels about famous artists of one type or another over the past few years and been less than impressed. Then again, I’ve read The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s novel about Michelangelo and it changed me with its power. Warily, I succumbed to my Emily Dickinson curiosity and my love for Irish writers. Nuala O’Connor has breathed both poetic nuance and daily life into 19th century Amherst, MA. and one of its most famous residents.
The novel opens during a crisis in the Dickinson family home. Their maid of all work has gotten married, so Emily, her mother, and her sister Vinnie have had to take up the slack. “Housework is regularizing,” states Mrs. Dickinson. Emily thinks, “I do not wish to be regularized. Or regular. My desire is to be free to pursue the things that please me.”
Well, I thought, I can relate to that. I have never had a maid, a cook, a cleaning lady. If I did, though, I would want to have the one Emily had. Miss Ada Concannon, who narrates the novel in alternate chapters with Emily, newly arrived in Amherst from Dublin, lands the job. She and Emily, who besides writing liked to pursue growing vegetables and flowers as well as baking cakes, become great friends.
I grew to trust Nuala O’Connor’s fine writerly ways. She created a voice for the 36-year-old Emily that combines her privileged life style, her dreamy poetical views of life, and her anxiety about leaving the house. Ada on the other hand has a voice all her own, being just 18, full of adventure, open to love, and suffering from a devout Catholic upbringing. It is clear that Emily is not attracted to men but easily loves women. Her best friend married Emily’s brother and lives next door. They spend as much time as possible together given that Susan is a wife, a mother, and expecting a second child. They read and discuss books and also Emily’s poetry, and they do a lot of touching each other.
So life settles in to a calm and happy time for all. Ada works harder than three women because in the 1860s everything has to be done by hand and from scratch. The friendship between Miss Emily and Ada grows, both in the kitchen and in Emily’s room where Ada comes to read her poems. But when a rough Irish fellow who works with Ada’s boyfriend first stalks and then sexually attacks her, the story becomes full of tension. Emily decides to overcome her agoraphobia and become Ada’s defender.
Nuala O’Connor has something like occult powers. She got me reading the poems as I read the book. I found an awesome website, http://www.poemhunter.com/emily-dickinson/ with all of them! I became as involved with the three women as I have with the characters in books by Tana French or Edna O’Brien or Colum McCann. It is a very Irish book at heart.
“Hope is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.”
Most of the characters are based on real people. Ada is an invented cousin of the Irish woman who later became the Dickinsons’ maid. In the end, I did not care who was real, what was invented, or what really happened. I just wanted the story. The author clearly loves Emily Dickinson and has a sensitive insight into women, even those who lived over 150 years ago. If the poem I quoted moves you even a little, you will like Miss Emily.