In June 2018, Nuala O’Connorwas kind enough to give me a copy of her 2015 novel Miss Emily when we met at the Bath Flash Fiction Festival
I’ve only just got around to reading it and discovering that rare thing – a really lovely and satisfying example of historical/biographical fiction.
A famously reclusive writer can’t be the easiest choice for a novelist but Nuala has made problems disappear with this beautifully constructed story of Emily Dickinson and her maid. The maid or servant is a trope of historical fiction. Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid springs to mind and I very nearly used a very real ‘maid’ (photographic assistant Jessie Mann) as sole narrator of In the Blink of an Eye. I have no idea if Miss Emily’s Ada Concannon is a total invention or drawn from history (I’m inclined to think the daguerreotype portrait of the Dickinson household which occurs in the story has a basis in fact) but she makes an excellent vehicle for a nicely constructed narrative.
Ada’s arrival in Amherst from Ireland brings a breath of fresh Irish air to the Dickinson household and a new dimension to the life of increasingly retiring Emily who misses the close companionship of her friend and sister-in-law, now pregnant for a second time, and the brother who seems to have grown into another person. The two stories – maid and mistress – begin as separate strands and become more closely intertwined as the pace ramps up: Ada is in love with fellow immigrant but pursued by the loathsome son of his employer. When disaster strikes, the Dickinson family is ready to disown the maid whose morals are now under question and so it falls to Emily to take a stand, something that’s not only contrary to her nature but also risks the censure of her family and the local community.
What drew me in was the immediacy of the contrasting narrative voices and the striking authenticity of character, dialogue and setting, all in prose that is both spare and poetic. An obviously happy ending is avoided but the plot strands of love, friendship, family and the attachments of home are all attended to in a highly satisfying conclusion.
I have said before how difficult it can be to meld fact and fiction, but here’s a book that does it to great effect. My edition is from Penguin but I see Miss Emily is now published by indie Scottish publisher Sandstone Press, who appear here with some regularity.
Finally let’s hear it for the helpers and handmaids!
One thought on “Helpers and Handmaids: Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor #historicalfiction #biographicalfiction”
A beautifully judged review, Ali. I envy the writer who engages your sympathy and imagination to such good effect.
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