Nuala O’Connor’s enchanting American debut novel, Miss Emily, reimagines the private life of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most beloved poets, through her own voice and through the eyes of her family’s Irish maid.
Eighteen-year-old Ada Concannon has just been hired by the respected but eccentric Dickinson family of Amherst, Massachusetts. Despite their difference in age and the upstairs-downstairs divide, Ada strikes up a deep friendship with Miss Emily, the gifted elder daughter living a spinster’s life at home. But Emily’s passion for words begins to dominate her life. She will wear only white and avoids the world outside the Dickinson homestead. When Ada’s safety and reputation are threatened, however, Emily must face down her own demons in order to help her friend, with shocking consequences.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.07(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.67(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Read an Excerpt
Miss Emily Dickinson Demands a New Maid
July and there is crisis. Father throws down his cutlery and says he will not eat one more burnt potato.
“And I will not baste another seam,” I say, glancing at Mother.
“Margaret O’Brien is all but irreplaceable,” Mother says, taking a swig of currant wine. “And there are only four of us, with Austin gone. We are a small household. Yes, Margaret may be missed, but we will manage.”
I think of Margaret, snug now in her marital chambers with her beloved Mr. Lawler, a competent mother to his four orphans. The Lawler house no doubt gleams all around them, and beauti- fully cooked potatoes steam on their dinner plates. I am silenced by Margaret’s defection. Because she toils no more here, I must toil. Am I put out? Yes, I am. Am I anguished? I find that I am.
“Some of us miss Margaret O’Brien dreadfully,” Father says.
“Housework is regularizing, Edward.”
I stare at Mother. I do not wish to be regularized. Or regular. My desire is to be free to pursue the things that please me. And why say it to Father anyway? He is only required to enjoy the spoils of others’ labor.
“Well, replace the irreplaceable Margaret we must, my dear,” he says. “Emily is permanently floured to the elbows, Vinnie is never without a sweeping brush, and you are becoming too often ill from the weight of the household. Even the hens refuse to perform their duty since we lost Margaret. I shall see about a re- placement forthwith.”
I smile around at them all, from Father to Mother to Vinnie. My sister winks at me above the head of the puss she dandles on her lap.
“Do not look so triumphant, Emily,” Mother says.
I change my facial expression to a more Mother-pleasing one but allow myself to feel exultant. I know that when Father decides on something, he applies himself to its execution with vigorous care, and I have privately wheedled, cajoled and begged him to right the situation. Father lives and loves ferociously, and, for me, there is little he will not do. We shall soon have our new maid-of-all-work. My shriven hands will look robust once more. No more hauling scuttles or trying, vainly, to get chicken and mushrooms and gravy to magic themselves ready at the same time. No more will I scrub, peel, milk, feed, wash, lift, scrape and polish. I will bake when the want overtakes me, not when Mother desires a rye loaf or her callers an apple pie. And I will be able to write anytime I please, for as long as I wish, not only in the dull snatches of time between this chore and the next.
I could rise from the table and kiss Father, here and now. Instead I eat the meal before me, knowing that soon we will sample beautifully cooked potatoes again.
Miss Ada Concannon Is Banished to the Scullery
I lower myself into the Liffey, first to my thighs and then waist-high. It is not too cold; the June days have heated the river, and the water has held the warmth all night. I flop onto my back and push away from the bank with my toes. My underclothes bloom like seedpods. Rose stands at the water’s edge, guarding my dress and boots, the swamp stretching behind her. Her eyes are fixed to where I loll in the murky river; she is making sure, I suppose, that I am not about to slip from her life as I so often threaten to do.
I look toward the swamp, then spin on my back so I can see our house, a few fields off. While I float on the water, the village of Tigoora stirs much the same as it does every day. In our house Daddy puts on his jacket and thinks, maybe, about his time on the shivering ocean waves. The baronet and his lady snooze on, no doubt, knowing that the live-ins toil already and the rest of us will arrive shortly. Light seeps upward, diluting the ashen sky. The small ferryboat rocks, waiting to take us across the river to the Big House to begin our work.
“Ada, get out now,” Rose calls. “I can see the ferryman coming. And Daddy, too. He told you not to go in the river.”
I wave to Rose and swim a few strokes on my back. My sister looks like she might weep, so I haul myself out and pull my dress over my soaked underthings. The cloth drags against my wet skin, and Rose tugs at my sleeves and skirt to fix them. I wipe mud from my feet with wads of grass and pull on my stockings and boots.
“Look at your hair,” Rose says forlornly, catching the rope of it and squeezing out drops.
“It’ll be hidden under my cap,” I say. “Don’t fret, Rose.”
“Once more you stink of the Liffey, Ada.” Mrs. Rathcliffe, the housekeeper, watches while I put on my apron. “And your hair is a shambles. I told your father to warn you not to arrive in that state to this house. Did he speak to you?”
“He did, ma’am.” “And?”
“And I won’t do it again, ma’am.”
“I cannot have you traipsing through the place like a muddy rat.” Cook joins us in the stillroom. “Lady Elizabeth is coming down this morning to do the menus. You’ll need to get her out of here.” Cook tosses her head in my direction.
Mrs. Rathcliffe looks at me, and I am chastened by her stern face. “Ada, from today you will join your sister in the scullery.”
“And you will not converse with each other. If I hear one speck of chatter or, God forbid, laughter from the scullery, I will be very, very cross. There will be consequences. Do you understand?”
I leave the stillroom and stand in the passageway. The scullery, I think. I have had my warnings, but I am taken aback. I am dil- igent in my duties in this house, and the scullery is a step down.
They mean me to go backward through this life, it seems. What will the other girls say? And Mammy? Cook and Mrs. Rathcliffe continue to speak, thinking, I suppose, that I am already en- sconced with Rose.
“That Ada Concannon is a peculiarly restless girl,” Cook says. “Her father might do better finding her a husband.”
“I’ll hand over a golden guinea to Concannon if he can find a husband for any of his girls. The men are all dead of the Hunger or gone on the boat. Good luck to him nabbing one man between the eight of them.”
I hear the rustle of Mrs. Rathcliffe’s skirts, and I run along the passageway. Rose smiles when I enter the scullery, her cheeks already glistening from the steam. The room is small, and though Rose is, too, she seems to fill it. I put my finger to my lips.
“I’m to work here with you,” I whisper. “We’re not allowed talk.” Rose grins. “That will hardly suit you, Ada.” She takes a dolly tub from its rack and readies it for soaking clothes. “What will I do, Rose?”
She points to a hare that is stretched out in the cold-water sink. “That needs skinning.”
I grab the hare by the ears and lay it out on a board. Using a small knife, I slit the animal behind the ear and stick my finger inside; I pull the fur off its back and go at the legs.
“I’d rather be laying out the morning tea in the servants’ hall or blacking the grate in Lady Elizabeth’s parlor than doing this.” “Of course you would, Ada. But Daddy did warn you. You wouldn’t be told.”
I throw the hare onto its belly and fillet the back, my knife skimming its backbone as I cut. “God Almighty, will I be stuck here forever?”
“I’m stuck here. It does me no harm.”
“But you’re content in yourself, Rose. You know what I’m like—restless as a pup.”
“What’s Daddy going to say to you, Ada? And Mammy?” She puts a bundle of chemises into the tub. “Will you be paid the same as me now?”
I shrug, but I wonder if that is what will happen; the thought of it shames me. I would be better off finding a new position else- where if they mean to make an example of me altogether. I curse Mrs. Rathcliffe. I curse myself for my morning dip in the river.
“I don’t know what’s next for me, Rose. I don’t know at all.”
I cut in under the hare’s ribs, then drag the rest of the meat off with my hands, enjoying the sinewy rip of it. Each pull of the flesh tugs a fierce grunt from my throat. I glance up to see my sister watching me, and though I smile at her, her look in return is doubtful. I’ ll show them, I think—Cook and Mrs. Rathcliffe and Daddy and them all. They’ll see that I was made for more than the scullery. I’ll do something that will shake the lot of them, and though I have no idea yet what it might be, it will be big.
Miss Emily Surveys Amherst
The July air in Amherst always hums with heat and promise. The conservatory is too greenly stuffy today, so I climb up and up through the house to the cupola. It is warm too and smells of the camphor gum I scatter to deter moths; I like this place to be truly my own—not even insects are welcome. It is my lamp atop the house, my spy hole.
I peer down onto Main Street, hoping to see Susan walking out from the Evergreens with little Ned, thinking she might pass on her way to the Sweetsers’ house. Alas, she is not abroad. Looking down into the garden, I see that the top of Austin’s Quercus alba is rich with foliage; how proud he is of that oak. Across the meadow the factory churns out the palm hats that adorn heads from Maine to Oregon. And far off, the Pelham Hills are a lilac shimmer under the haze. I wonder what it would be like to be up on the hills now, looking back at Amherst, all snug and industrious in the summer heat.
I think of yesterday and the sweet afternoon I spent with Susan in the garden of the Evergreens.
“Do you realize, Sue,” I said, “that we know each other twenty years this summer?”
“Truly, Emily? Can it be that we first met in ‘46? Why, yes, it must be so.” She smiled one of her glorious smiles, and the lamb hairpin that Austin gifted her on their marriage seemed to smile along with her. “How wonderful to have remained such steadfast friends through all of life’s ripples.” She took my hand in hers and pumped it; we both laughed.
Dear, radiant Sue. Whatever would I do without her? She has a patient, committed ear. She is the only audience my heart trusts, and to her alone I gift my deepest thoughts, my most profound self. For sure we have had our bumps; she is somewhat unknowable and changeable, and I am perhaps a little too needy for her at times. And when she and Austin kept their engagement secret—and for so many months—I was undone. But we jog along, and all those years ago I soon realized that her being wedded to Austin was an opportunity. What better way to retain a loved friend than through matrimony with one’s own brother? Ten years on from their marriage, it is one of my greatest blessings to have her next door.
Sue lifted her face to me. “I really liked the poem you sent me yesterday, Emily. There is such joy in it. I could not say I under- stood it all, but the image of the bee was rather beautiful. You find poetry everywhere, my dear.”
I can send Sue a note or poem on any old scrap—she does not expect gilt-edged formality. She is as hungry to read my words as I am to write them. It is our small conspiracy: I show all my writings to Sue, and she makes helpful remarks that I mull over and accept or reject. Her wish is to help me to accomplish the best possible poem, not mold my words to her desire, which is what I fear from others.
Several women pass on the street below the house, parasols shielding their faces from the sun. I think to let out a cry or make a birdcall, but they might look up to the cupola and see me, catch me in my silliness. It would achieve nothing but to give them fodder with which to discuss me. Austin says I am much gossiped about already, and clearly it displeases him. But what is there for me to do about it? I have my own ways. I opt not to whistle or startle the parasol women, and they walk on unawares, leaving me free of their glances, their disapproval. But I still ponder that of my brother. He has become stern over the years; he was such a blithe boy. The demands of marriage and upright citizenship have stiffened him somewhat, but surely not completely? He won the prize—Susan! Perhaps he tries too hard to be manly, to be more like Father, and, in trying, he chooses Father’s worst traits to em- ulate. I know not. I only see that the soft brother of our youth hides himself well now.
It is stifling in the cupola, though the full views of Amherst please me; I am an eagless in her eyrie. I look across at the tower atop Austin and Sue’s house and wonder if we will talk again soon, if she will come to me, to sit awhile and tell me of new books she has read or people she has recently met. When we sat together yesterday, we hardly spoke of now; we let ourselves linger in our younger days, recalling hours spent at her sister’s house when they first moved to Amherst.
I am eager to let Sue know that we will shortly have a new maid and therefore I shall be able to spend more time composing notes and poems to her and maybe, if I am up to it, sitting in her company. Sue’s face is rounded out these days because of the baby that makes a small mountain of her front. The extra flesh on her cheeks suits her, as everything does. Sweet Sue, my own Dollie, my nearly-sister. She is as good as any true sister and more besides.
I take one last look from each of the four windows and de- scend to my room. My desk sits forlorn by the window; a swath of peach light crosses its cherrywood like an invitation. I look at Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot in their frames on the wall and know that they understand my distress at my enforced absence from words.
At night, when I am not too bone weary, I dream. I would love to live in the softer planet of dreams. But if I cannot live in dreamworlds—those palpable fantasies that are conjured from fancy, as much as from the stuff of life—then I am content to invent parallel worlds. Places of the imagination that I alone can inhabit. And these destinations are made of words.
“Emily! Emily, come now.”
It is Vinnie calling, and I go down to her in the kitchen. She is sweating over a mound of crockery, and it is my duty to help, it seems. One of her menagerie strolls along the table toward the butter dish, tail cocked like a lord.
“See how Mr. Puss preens,” I say to Vinnie, who smiles the indulgent, motherly smile reserved for her charges.
I grab a cloth and begin to dry and stack the dishes. I lean into Vinnie’s side and chant into her ear:
“ —His porcelain— Like a Cup—
Discarded of the Housewife— Quaint—or Broke—
A newer Sèvres pleases— Old Ones crack.”
“Less poetry, more drudgery, please, Emily.” She flicks water droplets at my face, and I muss her curls, then pick up another plate to dry it.
“The opposite is my life’s hopeful refrain these days, Vinnie.
‘More poetry, less drudgery.’ Perhaps I could compose a verse on that.”
Miss Ada Leaves Ireland for the New World
It is the night before I am to go, and Mammy says to me, “Ada, this is the last time we will speak. A girl like you won’t have any wish to come back to a place like this.”
“Ah, Mam,” I say, taking her hands in mine, but we both know the truth of it. Once I close the door on our house in Ti- goora, I will be gone for good and all. No one comes home from the New World once they go to it.
Mammy thinks it is just a figairy I took, to leave my Dublin home and my position with the baronet and sail for America; she says I have too many notions. But ever since my Auntie Mary Maher and her family left Tipperary to go across the sea, I have thought about going myself. My Auntie Mary’s letters spill with Massachusetts, Washington and Connecticut, and the names of these places have always been like songs in my ear. At night, I whisper to myself the spots she mentions; they are lullabies to help me toward sleep: the District of Columbia, Hartford, Amherst.
“Massachusetts,” I often say to Rose. “Massachusetts. What do you suppose a name like that means?”
Today I am up before everyone else. I sit at the table alone and spoon cold stirabout into my mouth—Mammy left a bowl out for me. She never likes a lingering good-bye, so I bade farewell to her before we turned in. Rose lay deep into my side in our shared bed, sobbing for hours until she drifted off. I was awake most of the night listening to the sleep sounds of my sisters and wondering what might lie ahead.
Daddy comes into the kitchen, stands by the stove and sighs. “You’re off so,” he says.
“I am, Daddy.”
He takes me the five miles to the train station in the baronet’s trap. He does not speak until we are on the platform.
“Godspeed, Ada.” He hugs me close. “Good-bye, Daddy. I will write.”
“You’ll write to your mother, I suppose,” he says. “Stay amid- ships if the swells bother you. And keep your eyes on the horizon.” I step back to look into his face, but he turns from me and is gone. I take the train to Kingstown and board the first of the boats that will ferry me across the seas. The gangway is jammed with people, and a ship’s officer shouts at us not to break it. “Go easy, go easy!” he roars.
But in the throng we have no choice whether to move forward or back to save his gangway, with all the pushing and shoving and trick-acting that is going on.
Up on the deck, I grip the rail and watch the harbor shrink as we move away; Dublin lies like a big dozy cow, not able to shake the sleep off herself. I wrap my hands around the rail and rock back and forth; my palms come away dappled with salt grains, and I hold them up and watch them glint in the early sun. I laugh aloud, feeling happier than I ever remember in my seventeen years on this earth. I have never been on a big boat, and though every- thing is rumbling and strange, I feel as if I have done it all before; it is like adventure comes natural to me. The coast of Ireland gets smaller and smaller—it cannot disappear quick enough. It is pos- sible, I think, to throw off one life and glide toward another so easily that it is barely noticeable. When Dublin is no more than a blurred line, I put my back to it and turn my face forward.
Miss Emily Hides in the Garden
The goddess Pomona has been around the orchard scat- tering her goodness: everything is floral and abundant, while the apple maggots and cabbage worm do their best to undo it all. I sit under a pine, listening to the sounds of the earth, the turn of the beetle and the bone song of the crickets; above me a jay chimes her good fortune to the sky. Moody Cook, the blacksmith, is by the barn tending to the horses with the Irish boy, Byrne, who some- times comes. Their voices lilt across the garden to me, though I cannot hear what they say. Byrne is a big, well-put-together young man, steady, gracious and capable. Father talks of him in an avun- cular way, as if he has made Byrne the fine fellow he is.
The smells are summery: leaves, blossom and rich marl. I would like to push my hands deep into the clay and savor its deathly cool around my fingers; I would enjoy the corpsy feeling of it. I fix my spine against the tree trunk and stretch my chin skyward. There is true peace here for those of us who crave it.
I am hiding from Mother and Vinnie, who are determined to pin sheets while the sun shines, but the wet slap of linens is not what I want to feel today. There is a poem forming in my gut, and in order to release it, I must be alone. I have a chocolate wrapper and a pencil in my pocket, and as soon as the words crystallize in my mind and push to my fingertips, I will write them down. For that I need the shelter of the garden; I am too easily discovered in the house.
Mother’s voice—in the imperious tone she uses for the help— slices through the air. “Mr. Cook! Mr. Byrne! Has my eldest daughter passed this way?”
The men saw me indeed, for they stopped their fussing around Dick, Father’s favorite horse, as I passed the chaise-house. They stood to watch me go by, both raising a hand in salute. I had put my finger to my lips and shaken my head, knowing they would take my meaning.
“No, ma’am,” I hear Moody say, “I have not spoken to Miss Emily this day.”
“Nor I,” says Byrne.
They did not even lie. Bravo, Moody Cook! Bravo, Daniel Byrne! I rise and slink under cover of trees to the farthest reach of the Homestead’s rim and prop myself behind a large chestnut where there is no chance of Mother unearthing me.
Words begin to jostle, then settle, in my mind; they play out before me as if already written. I see them in the inked curlicues of my own handwriting; I see them in pencil, blocky and spare. Words behave differently depending upon what I need them for. Writing a poem is not like writing a letter; the addressee is my soul—myself. Yes, I write for myself, and if the thing I write ends up shambolic or spasmodic, then what of it? Is it not the nature of all humankind to be unruly and contrary? To be uneven and to do things in uncharacteristic ways? Words are my sustenance: they are bread and wine. I flex my fingers and press my palms together. I flatten the yellow chocolate wrapper across my knees, take my pencil in my hand and begin to write.
Miss Ada Arrives in Amherst, Massachusetts
My Uncle Michael sits beside me as the train rolls toward Amherst.
“Massachusetts is greener than Ireland,” I say to him.
“Only parts of it, girleen, and only for some of the year.” Uncle pats my arm. “It’s August now, but let me tell you, come winter there will be snow thicker and higher than you have ever seen.” He clicks his tongue in pace with the train’s skip and jolt. “Now, tell me all about the passage.”
“My stomach never rose into my mouth once,” I say, “though it was often wild at sea. And they served a gray slumgullion to us three times a day. I was the only girl on deck most of the time. The men seemed hardier than the women.”
“And did you find people to talk to?”
“Not really. There was an English girl bound for Boston, but she could hardly speak she was so sick.”
I don’t tell him about the woman with the oranges. Every night she sat alone at the long table in steerage and peeled an orange. Never having eaten an orange before, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. She dug her nails into the skin and broke the fruit into pieces; she popped the slices into her mouth, and the juice dribbled from her lips. I had never witnessed the like, and the sweet, strange smell tickled at my nose. The cut of her, I thought, my mouth filling with spit. There was something obscene and lovely about the woman, and I would have given my two ears for a nibble of that orange.
“Wait until you see where we live,” Uncle Michael says. “Annie’s husband set us up nicely. He’s a decent man.” He sounds proud. Mammy always said that my cousin Annie’s good marriage had benefited them all. Annie married a Kelley from Tipp; she met him in America and not in Tipperary at all. Tom Kelley bought a large property on Main Street in Amherst, and all his family, and the Mahers, live on it in different houses. Tom named it—rather grandly, I think—Kelley Square.
Auntie Mary is at the door of her house when we walk up from the train station, our legs unfixing after sitting so long. Auntie cries, shakes her head and looks at me as if I am something Uncle Michael has charmed out of the clouds.
“Ada!” she calls, arms outstretched. “Ada Concannon, come here and let me wrap myself around you. I declare to God, it’s like looking at my own sister. You’re the spit of Ellen, the walking head off her.”
All life throbs outside their door; the center of Amherst is not far. While Auntie Mary crushes me to her breast and sobs into my hair, I look farther up the way. Horses and men fill the street; women stroll, and children run. The smells in the air are sharp but welcome: oil and dung and a clear autumn-ness that is made of leaves. This is a town of light and brick; it hasn’t the gray drear of Sackville Street back home; it hasn’t the endless green of the land around Tigoora, though there are hills off in the distance. Auntie smells of butter, and her dress is stiff and new; she is a different shape to Mammy, but there is something of Mammy in her, too.
“Mary, you’re holding that girl like you’ll never let her go.
Bring Ada inside and let her take her rest. Feed her. She must be wall-falling with the hunger.”
Auntie steps back and looks at me. “How was my darling Ellen when you left, a leana? How are they all?” I go to speak, but she shushes me. “We’ll get you settled first.”
I startle awake to the sound of a long, sharp whistle, and it takes a minute for me to realize it is coming from outside. It is the factory whistle, I learn later, calling the men to work. It takes me another minute to let the shape of the room settle around me, to know where I am. My cousin Maggie’s bed is neat and com- fortable, and I can’t say I miss the snorting and farting of my sisters. Maggie is in Connecticut, doing for the Boltwood family, which is lucky for me, because I get her room, never mind her bed, all to myself.
I can hear Mammy’s voice saying, “Look at you lying there, Ada Concannon. You think you’re a cut above buttermilk.”
“That’s right, Mammy,” I say aloud. “I do think that. Because I am.”
Light slants through the sides of the shutters, and I get up and open them to see what I can see. The house is already awake—I can hear them below—and I don’t want Michael and Mary to think I am a lazy strap, so I haul myself into my petticoat and dress and go down.
Miss Emily’s Father Pleases Her
Father is triumphant. His voice booms through the open back door, and I stand and listen from the yard.
“She starts Monday next. She does not need to live in.” “And her experience?” Mother says.
“Vast experience. She worked for a baronet in Dublin before coming here, as a scullery maid and in the stillroom.”
“She will find our household modest in comparison, no doubt.”
“I daresay she will find us easier.” Father allows himself a laugh. “Now, my dear. You may congratulate me on such an early and spectacular success.”
I step through the door into the kitchen. “Success, Father?”
“Yes, indeed, Emily. I have found you a neat little person, a cousin of Maggie Maher’s, who does so well for the Boltwoods. Do you see how determination brings dividends? This girl is fresh off the boat from Ireland and keen to work. Am I pleasing you thus far?”
I go to him and kiss his cheek. “Yes, Father.”
“Emily, you will be doubly pleased when I tell you that she is an accomplished baker.”
“I am glad of that, to be sure,” Mother says.
“Does she possess a name, this Irish cousin?” I ask.
“She is called ‘Miss Ada Concannon.’ ” Father chuckles and shakes his head. “Now, Emily of the Words, does that not charm you greatly? Concannon! Such a name. And, Miss Concannon tells me, she is from a small Dublin townland called ‘Tigoora.’ Tigoora!”
The variety of Irish names always amuses Father. When Austin—who was ever the bravest of our fold—would come home from teaching the Irish immigrants at the Endicott School in Boston’s North End, one of the first things Father did was have him recite the family names of the boys. Austin would proud his chest and rattle off as many as came to mind: McLoughlin, O’Gorman, O’Donoghue, Murray, O’Connor, Considine, Foyle, Cooney, O’Brien, Egan, Finley, Griffin, Kerrigan, McIlhargey, Sullivan, O’Neill.
Father laughed at the preposterous Mc’s and O’s, and this delighted Austin, who was contemptuous of his charges and would thrash them frequently, according to himself. And perhaps rightly so, for they were a rambunctious crew, accustomed to the North End’s Black Sea area and its brawls and riots.
Austin told Vinnie and me of the houses of ill repute in Boston, which scattered half-clad women onto the streets at all hours of the day. We loved to hear of the ladies’ painted faces and slovenly manners; Austin imitated their talk and their swagger, and we egged him on, thirsty for every detail. He called them doxies and streetwalkers, and we liked to imagine their sordid lives. North End is a place of taverns and stygian slums, and every Dickinson said a prayer of thanks—even the ungodly ones such as me—when my brother tossed away the schoolroom key and came home to Amherst for good.
Miss Ada Makes an Early Success
“We’ll give you a few days’ grace, Ada, and then we’ll find a position for you.” Auntie Mary sets an egg before me, and I bash it on the head and scoop out its lovely golden heart.
“The eggs in America are much prettier than the ones at home,” I say.
Mary smiles. “You’ll be queen of Amherst in no time, Ada. I can see that already.”
“The Dickinsons are looking for a new maid-of-all-work,” Uncle says. “Mr. Frink mentioned it to me when I said our niece was coming to live with us.”
“That’s welcome news,” Auntie says. “The Dickinsons are a decent family, and you would have only four to do for: himself, herself and their two spinster daughters. And they live nearby.”
“Are they very grand? Is the house large?”
“Oh, they are not very grand, but they are well-to-do. Diligent, devout people, I would consider them. Popular in the town. The Squire is an attorney, and he bought back the family home on Main Street—the Homestead, as they call it. His father, they say, squandered money—well, he was a bankrupt anyway. The house is modestly large, and the Dickinsons are serious, proper people. The unmarried daughters live with their parents, as I said. Generous, nice young women, though the elder one, Miss Emily, does not go out much anymore, which is remarked upon.” Auntie Mary frowns. “She prefers her own company, I daresay.”
“Enough blather now, Mary,” Uncle says. “They are fine people, that is all. I will call on Mr. Dickinson today.”
But he doesn’t have to, because Mr. Dickinson and his son, Mr. Austin, come to the house on Kelley Square. Auntie Mary receives them in the parlor, and after a while I am brought in to be observed. Mr. Dickinson has a flat, serious mouth, and he is dressed like an undertaker, but he is a stately-looking man. His son is a wild-haired, younger version of the father, and he stands by the window, holding himself apart from us all. Auntie Mary glances at Mr. Austin while she speaks, as if she doesn’t trust herself not to say anything foolish in his presence.
“Ada is a strong girl, Mr. Dickinson.” Auntie holds me by the shoulders in front of the older man. “You couldn’t ask for a hardier lassie. My own family are long-lived, but the Concannons are powerful people. Ada’s father is round as a hog, but he can lift a rain barrel.”
Mr. Dickinson holds up his hand. “You have convinced me, Mrs. Maher,” he says. “We will receive Miss Concannon on Monday. Where do you hail from, miss?”
“Tigoora in County Dublin, sir.”
“Tigoora? Very well,” Mr. Dickinson says. “Come, Austin. The lawbreakers of Amherst await us.”
The son walks from his spot by the window and surveys me. He grunts, and I take it for some sort of approval. “Good day to you, Mrs. Maher,” he says, and his voice is solemn but not un- pleasant. Both men tip their hats and are gone.
Auntie Mary takes me by the shoulder. “Well now, Ada, isn’t that marvelous? I will write to your mother immediately and tell her what a success you have made of your very first day in Amherst.”
“Am-erst,” I warble, imitating her pronunciation. “Am-erst.” Auntie looks at me as if I am half mad.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Miss Emily
“A superb novel, I was captivated from the first page. With gorgeous, compelling period detail and graceful prose, Nuala O’Connor reimagines a friendship between one of our greatest poets and her Irish maid. With uncanny insight into the expected portrayal of a servant-mistress relationship, and in keeping with the power and beauty of Dickinson’s poetry, O’Connor celebrates her women with great delicacy and exuberance.”
—KATHLEEN GRISSOM, bestselling author of The Kitchen House
“I read this wonderful novel in a gulp. Nuala O’Connor is a gifted storyteller with a poet’s eye for detail. We are offered a tantalizing glimpse into the private life of one of America’s greatest poets, but for me, the real triumph is the character of Ada, Emily’s young Irish maid. It’s Ada who is the heart of this novel. She’s as beautifully realized as the gingerbread she so meticulously bakes with Emily. I can’t wait to read what O’Connor writes next.”
—NATASHA SOLOMONS, New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford
"Beautifully written and utterly compelling, this vivid portrait of Emily Dickinson examines her humanity, complexity and profound relationship with words. Told in her own eloquent voice and that of her trusted maid, Miss Emily deftly braids together the stories of two intriguing women in this highly accomplished novel."
—CATHY MARIE BUCHANAN, New York Times bestselling author of The Painted Girls
“Nuala O'Connor's Miss Emily is evocative, thought-provoking, and beautifully rendered; a poignant portrait of two very different women, drawn together in unlikely friendship by a common strength of spirit and mind. Readers will delight in this richly imagined glimpse into the worldsboth inner and outerof the immortal Emily Dickinson. I wanted to race through the novel, and yet, the language was so engrossing that I forced myself to slow down, just enough to savor each sentence.”
—ALLISON PATAKI, New York Times bestselling author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Accidental Empress
“A jewel of a novel, Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor is a fascinating, heartfelt, and captivating glimpse into the mind and heart of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most beloved poets, interwoven with the story of her spirited, witty, and devoted Irish maid, Ada. With its luminous prose and sympathetic, realistically drawn characters, you will feel yourself irresistibly drawn into Emily’s and Ada’s private worlds with every turn of the page.”
—SYRIE JAMES, bestselling author of Jane Austen’s First Love and The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen
“This beautifully-crafted biographical novel vividly evokes Emily Dickinson and her world: her obsessive solitude, her sensual relationship with her sister-in-law, her conflicted relationship with her brother, and, most central, her companionable friendship with Ada, a spunky and superstitious Irish maid. Alternating between the stories of Emily and Ada, the novel brims with the charming details of their domestic life, the unfolding of a sweet romance, yet also, ultimately, brings to light the tragic effects of a violent reality that most often goes unmentioned, even today. This is an intensely engaging, emotional and important story, exquisitely rendered. Brilliant!”
—SANDRA GULLAND, author of the internationally bestselling Josephine B. Trilogy
“Miss Emily is a triumph of a novel, creating an utterly human and believable Emily Dickinson through the eyes of an enchanting and complex fictional Irish woman. Their story is smart and witty and harrowing and brilliantly revelatory of the interplay of life and inspiration in a nascent great artist. And all this is done in prose that has the same condensed, particularizing power of Dickinson’s poetry. Nuala O’Connor has long been one of my favorite contemporary Irish writers. She will certainly find an ardently admiring American audience with this extraordinary novel.”
—Pulitzer Prize-winning author ROBERT OLEN BUTLER
“Like a Dickinson poem, Miss Emily seems at first a simple story of friendship, but gradually reveals itself as a profound meditation on the human condition. O’Connor accomplishes this unfolding, just as Dickinson did, with her exquisite use of language. I lost myself in the beautiful detail of 1860s Amherst, a cast of characters that leapt off the page with life, and the constant reminder that words, properly wielded, can transcend time, transmit love, and, above all, inspire hope.”
—CHARLIE LOVETT, New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman’s Tale
“The structure of the book is reminiscent of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, a lyrical dialogue between two distinct voices. Ada and Emily are divided by class, ethnicity, learning, circumstance; but a deep empathy and shared humanity unite them as women. This is a bittersweet story of repressed passion, thwarted opportunity, and the selflessness that is the essence of love.”
—STEPHANIE BARRON, bestselling author of the Being A Jane Austen Mystery series
“An absorbing and provocative take on the inner life of a brilliant poet and her increasingly shrinking universe. The Dickinson household of Amherst, Massachusetts is complex and very odd indeed and the tension builds towards shocking consequences for all involved. Nuala O'Connor's prose skillfully and lyrically creates Emily Dickinson's voice and that of her young Irish housekeeper who chronicles the poet's harrowing struggle to find the freedom to write while living a cloistered life at home. A novel you won't want to put down.”
—JENNIFER KAUFMAN and KAREN MACK, authors of Freud’s Mistress
"Miss Emily is an intricate, intimate novel that, in its careful attention to language, pays homage to our most American poet's extraordinary work. There are references to that work, rewards to true Dickinson aficionados, secreted in O'Connor's prose, but this novel achieves a broader aim too: it tells a story of friendship that keeps us turning the pages."
—KELLY O'CONNOR MCNEES, author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and The Island of Doves
“Secrets will always out. In the same way as Emily Dickenson’s poems were once the best kept secret in Massachusetts, Nuala O’Connor’s luminous prose has long been one of Ireland’s most treasured literary secrets. Now through her superb evocation of 19th century Amherst, an international audience is likely to be held rapt by the sparse lyricism and exactitude of O’Connor’s writing. Through a fusion of historical ventriloquism and imaginative dexterity, O’Connor vividly conjures up – in the real-life Emily Dickinson and the fictional Ada Concannon – two equally unforgettable characters who pulsate with life in this study of the slowly blossoming friendship between a delicate literary recluse and a young Irish emigrant eager to embrace the new world around her.”
—DERMOT BOLGER, playwright and author of The Journey Home and The Venice Suite, among others
“I finished this morning and had to write to you straight away! My goodness—what a wonderful, wonderful book. I feel so privileged to have read it; I honestly cannot praise this book enough. Nuala O'Conner's beautiful writing sings from every single page as Emily and Ada's fascinating story unfolds. An absolute joy to read—I will be telling everyone about this book.”
—HAZEL GAYNOR, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home
"An original portrayal of Emily Dickinson seen here not just as a lover of words, but as a heroine and friend to a plucky Irish maid who casts a new and sympathetic light on the Belle of Amherst."
—SHEILA KOHLER, author of Becoming Jane Eyre
“Nuala O'Connor casts a keen, compassionate eye below the veneer of domesticity to illuminate the passion, pain, and life force behind the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Quietly elegant and moving, poignantly humane, Miss Emily is a rare gift.”
—ANIA SZADO, author of Studio Saint-Ex
Reading Group Guide
1. Were you familiar with Emily Dickinson’s work before beginning this novel? Do you read poetry frequently? What drew you to the book?
2. Nuala O’Connor incorporates some of Dickinson’s poems throughout Miss Emily. Which did you enjoy the most?
3. In nineteenth-century Amherst, Emily and Ada are both limited by their gender but Ada is also constrained by class. What examples can you find of each woman’s respective powerlessness?
4. Emily repeatedly describes Ada as her friend, much to the disgust of her brother and sister-in-law. Is it possible to be close friends with an employer, or with someone outside your own class?
5. The novel alternates between Emily’s voice and Ada’s. How would a narrative told only from Ada’s or Emily’s perspective have changed your understanding of the characters and events in the story?
6. What is your family’s history? Did you or your relatives immigrate to the United States, like Ada did? What was your/their experience like?
7. If you were to describe this novel to a friend, what three words would you use?
8. No one knows what caused Emily Dickinson to lead such an intensely cloistered life—some people have supposed that she suffered from an anxiety disorder or poor health. Based on Emily’s internal monologue in the book, what does O’Connor imply is the root of this behavior?
9. Is Emily happy with her life? Is Ada?
10. The closing lines of the book belong to Ada’s musing on hope, seeing it as “small and bald at first, but then it gathers feathers to itself and flies on robust wings” (p. 239). This calls to mind Emily’s famous poem “Hope is the thing with feathers,” which imagines hope as a bird “that perches in the soul.” What is the significance of this image? If possible, find a copy of the poem and compare it to Ada’s description.