Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily: Real Versus Fictional Characters

Arleigh Johnson

Miss EmilyNarrating a novel in the voice of a well-known historical figure can be a daunting task. One must be both true to historical fact while giving the fictionalized version a believable and engaging persona. Another pitfall, especially when reimaging a writer’s life, may be the use of too many phrases from the author’s works, thus taking away the opportunity to give a fresh perspective on a well-studied subject. Miss Emily (Penguin US, Sandstone UK, 2015) avoids monopolizing poetic verses, using instead clever reasoning behind the characters’ actions and ponderings that relate to recorded words and peculiarities of the historical people.

Based on a period during the life of American poet and writer Emily Dickinson, the story follows two protagonists: Emily herself, and a fictional character from O’Connor’s own hometown in Ireland. Ada Concannon, a newly arrived Irish immigrant, is looking for work while staying with her Amherst, Massachusetts relatives. The Dickinsons are without a maid, and Emily and her sister have been dividing the chores, which leaves little time for other pursuits. It is with much relief that Ada is hired, ultimately moving in with the family to take care of kitchen and laundry duties, as well as other chores.

Emily, surprisingly to those not acquainted with the poet’s personal life, loved to bake, and she spends time in the kitchen with Ada, forming a bond between the women that is frowned upon by the elder Dickinsons. Emily’s brother, Austin, is portrayed as especially vehement about separating the social classes and behaving accordingly, although this was one of O’Connor’s fictions. She explains: “In reality, I think he was a much more fair-minded, generous, and genteel man than I have made him in my book, but I needed to serve the plot.” In fact, much of the conflict in the story deals with Emily’s shying away from Amherst society and withdrawing into her small circle, of which Ada becomes an increasingly important part. The kitchen comes to be a sanctuary for both women; for one as the means of living an independent life, and quite the opposite for the other. For Emily, it is sharing a part of herself that no one — not even her mother, sister or beloved sister-in-law, Susan — has witnessed.

Ada, as a fictitious addition to Emily’s world, provides much needed malleability as a character, which helps meet O’Connor’s creative demands. “It turned out [Emily] did have Irish maids, but I invented a new one so that I would not be working two real lives into fiction. I needed some room to imagine.” The author achieves a link between Emily and Ada by giving them similar traits, such as an interest in nature and a way with words. Ada is no poet, but her plain, blunt dialog sprinkled with her mother’s Irish sayings and superstitions gives inspiration to Emily, igniting the poet’s curiosity and muse. In the author’s words, “They are noticers — nothing escapes them.”

This novel, written in dual voices, works exceedingly well in blending fact and fiction. For those with a cursory knowledge of Dickinson’s life and poetry, the imagined content fits pleasingly with the mid-19th century setting. The poet’s verses, though cleverly interlaced within the narrative in various forms, are not noticeable replicas, as has been apparent in similar fictional biographies. A refreshing take on one of the noted periods of her life — Emily’s famous transition to wearing only white — is deftly woven into the story with thought and humor, as is her habit of distributing gingerbread cookies to the children in the neighborhood. Readers are given an admirable and respectable impression of a character who could as easily be seen as an odd recluse. Without both perspectives, there wouldn’t be an endearing depth of feeling between the characters. Ada’s inclusion, as a blank page to Emily’s strictly documented existence, works as an effective tool in creating an enthralling biographical novel.

About the contributor: Arleigh Johnson has worked in the book industry for more than a decade and is an active member of the book blogging community with her websites www.historical-fiction.com and www.royal-intrigue.net. She has been reviewing books online for 8 years and with the HNS since 2011.

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Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 74, November 2015


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