Monday, 13 November 2017


I have a particular interest in literary fictional biography as I’m writing a novel inspired by the late Victorian poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, so I’ve been looking forward to reading Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily, based on the life of Emily Dickinson, or at least a short period in that life. Let me say straight away that it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read and demonstrates great skill in a challenging genre.

The novel revolves around the invented story of Emily Dickinson and a dramatic episode in the life of the family’s new young Irish maid, Ada Concannon.  It’s structured in alternating chapters told in the first person by each of these characters. I find that this structure works well for me and draws me forward as I keep wanting to find out what’s happening from each point of view. As a comparison, Affinity by Sarah Waters uses the same technique and it kept me up all night reading, while Miss Emily also kept me turning the pages.

The risk with this technique is that readers may prefer one story to the other and rush through the alternating chapters to get to the character they prefer, but this isn’t the case with Emily and Ada. The two work well as a contrast – the extroverted and feisty Ada, far from home for the first time, and the introverted Emily who has become more and more housebound.

Ada’s story provides the forward movement of the plot, which starts in Ireland and follows her on the sea journey to America in search of work with the help of her family the Mahers who are already there. The Dickinsons did have a maid called Maggie Maher, so the reader is intrigued to find out how much of the novel is true and which parts are invention. There is no author’s note to tell us, unlike other novels in this genre, such as Author, Author by David Lodge, based on the life of Henry James.

Sense of place is key to the novel, with Ireland evoked as a physical presence at the start and end of the novel – the reader can smell and feel the cold and mucky Liffey that Ada swims in before work as a maid in Dublin at the start, and we can also smell and taste Ireland on our lips in the sea spray as Ada returns to her home at the end. Home is also important to Emily, with Amherst and her house and garden brought vividly to life in her constant awareness of minute details.

The two stories are complementary as well as contrasting, as Ada’s vulnerability to the predatory Patrick Crohan demonstrates women’s need for protection, so her independence and adventurous spirit come at a cost, while Emily’s self-protection with her home and family as a shield makes perfect sense. When Emily tells Ada near the end to live her life to the full, adding that she wishes she had, I wondered if that was consistent and if it was a quote from her life.

Relationships provide human interest, with a beautifully told love developing between Ada and Daniel Byrne who works with Crohan at the Dickinson household. O’Connor is particularly skilled at depicting all the stages of love and passion, and she is equally skilled at depicting what happens when this passion is used to harm others. This is no Mills and Boone romance: love in the nineteenth century comes with a risk of serious venereal disease such as gonorrhoea, and the reader is never sure if a young woman on her own could be attacked sexually and whether it’s a good idea to ‘step out’ with a man.

Some of the themes are especially topical, including the pressure on servants not to report harassment and sexual abuse. Emily’s brother Austin is the main person exerting this pressure, again making me wonder which of these episodes were based on biographical information, and how far an author can go in inventing significant speech and actions by historical figures.

There’s a biography of Emily Dickinson by Lyndall Gordon called Lives Like Loaded Guns which answered some of my queries. The historical Dickinson family maid Maggie Maher was feisty and she did work with the Dickinson sisters on household duties and baking. In the novel, Emily develops a friendship with Ada through their mutual love of baking, and although readers may wonder if servants formed this kind of bond with employers, this is historically accurate. In fact, the biography confirms that Maggie Maher not only baked with Emily, but the Dickinson sisters also took a share of the housework.

The story of Maggie Maher is a fascinating one, but it isn’t the story of the fictional Ada, apart from her nationality, feistiness, and friendship with Emily and her sister Lavinia. Unlike Ada, whose stay with the Dickinsons is fairly short, Maggie Maher spent many years with them and was one of the main witnesses in a trial against Mabel Todd, who felt she had been promised land in return for transcribing and editing Emily’s poems. The maid’s account included details of adultery between Mabel and Emily’s brother Austin, an intriguing story, but not the one told in O’Connor’s novel.

Instead Miss Emily tells a fictional tale about Ada, her trip to America, her developing love for Daniel, and experiences with the violent Crohan which lead to a crime that I won’t give any more spoilers for. It’s at this point that Emily gets involved in defending her maid and Austin shows himself to be prejudiced against the Irish and no defender of women. The Dickinson siblings will become embroiled in actions to resolve a situation that could ruin all their reputations, each supporting Ada for different motives.

The mixture of fact and fiction is inevitable in biographical fiction, but the decision to include significant fictional actions to the lives of historical characters is one that raises ethical questions. Should we or should we not do that as writers? I don’t know the answer to that. In Miss Emily I find that Emily Dickinson becomes a bit less believable when she leaves the house to take action to protect Ada in this episode.

I can forgive the lapse into a less credible Emily (and realise other readers may find the episode more believable than I do) because most of the book depicts a thoroughly convincing character. It’s a joy to experience life and writing from inside her head and this is no easy task when emulating the words of such a talented and unique writer. Emily is brought to life again for us, not only through the inclusion of some of her poems, but also in the way she thinks and how she transforms intense perceptions into pared down lines and stanzas.

Relationships are at the heart of the book, with the loyalty between Emily and Ada set against the sisterhood and love Emily still feels for her lifelong friend Susan, who has ‘turned to stone’ since marrying Austin. Although Susan lives next door, the closeness Emily craves has been withdrawn and her thoughts return continually to the pain this causes. Emily’s sexuality is suggested, although same sex relationships are given less evocative and passionate treatment than the heterosexual ones.

The encounters between Ada and Daniel are as good as any relationship scenes I have ever read. By contrast, the feelings Emily has are more ambiguous, which could come across as evasive in an author using first person narrative. As Susan has distanced herself from Emily on marriage, the less emotional scenes in Emily’s meetings with her are justifiable, but I wonder if something is missing or if it’s better to leave her sexuality questionable. It’s noticeable that Emily’s response to women in general isn’t as clear as Ada’s response to men, although the Dickinson family is on the lookout for any comments she makes that reveal same sex attraction. For example, when she expresses a wish to have a ribbon as blue as Ada’s eyes nothing is said, but they look at her with suspicion.

Miss Emily is an accomplished novel in the literary biographical fiction genre and has taken its place among my all time favourite books, while Nuala O’Connor has joined my list of favourite writers.

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