By Nuala O’Connor (Nuala Ní Conchúir)
(Sandstone Press, £8.99 stg, P/B)
The third novel from Galway-based writer Nuala O’Connor (who previously favoured her name rendered in Irish), concerns 17-year-old Ada Concannon, transposed from Tigorra on the banks of the Liffey in Co. Dublin in 1866, to relatives in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she finds employment as a maid-of-all-work with the Dickinson family. Our point of entry to this household is Emily, then in her 34th year and effectively retired from society, and better known to posterity than in her lifetime as the mould-breaking poet, who forms a bond with Ada, mostly over cake baking in the kitchen. Between them they narrate the story in alternating, first-person chapters. Apart from stern Father and remote Mother, Emily has an older brother Austin, already left the house and married to her best friend Susan, and a younger sister, Vinnie.
In many ways, the title seems a misnomer, as Ada is certainly the more vividly and vivaciously depicted character, and the novel is essentially her story. Besides which, Miss Emily doesn’t give enough credit to the servant for the dually shouldered narrative duties. There are, however, some excellent meditations in the Emily sections on the creative process, and the sacrifice and satisfactions of the solitude Emily chooses in order to be productive. ‘And why do I write? I ask myself daily for the answer differs at every dawn, at every midnight. I write, I feel, to grasp at truth. The truth is so often cloaked in misleading speech. Sometimes I let words fall carelessly from my lips when I am with people but, alone, I make them settle carefully onto paper. There they must be accurate and they must work as a choir works to sing a tune well…Oh chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words! I love to use the pretty ones like blades and the ugly ones to console. I use dark ones to illuminate and bright ones to mourn. And, when I feel as if a tomahawk has scalped me, I know it is poetry then and I leave it be.’
Like Yeats after her, Emily too feels forced to choose between perfection of the life or of the work: ‘But how can I explain that each time I get to the threshold, my need for seclusion stops me? The quarantine of my room – its peace and the words I conjure there – call me back from the doorway. Ada could not truly appreciate that the pull on me of words, and the retreat needed to write them, is stronger than the pull of people. Yes, words summon me to the sacramental, unsullied place where my roaming is not halted or harnessed by others. My mind and heart are only free in solitude and there I must dwell.’ Today, she’d just be diagnosed as agoraphobic.
Ada too, even if she is occasionally articulate beyond her years and can sound educated above her station, is no slouch when it comes to words, and it is a fine pleasure to see neglected locutions like ‘figairy’, ‘wall-falling’ and ‘laxadaisy’ in print again. Her gift of the gab extends to equally overlooked phraseology, for example ‘as pleased as a dog with two pockets.’
The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace, and we are well into the book before the vicissitudes Ada must overcome (with Emily’s help and support) kick in, and so it would be spoilerish to reveal their specific nature here. Suffice to say that Ada makes a match with fellow Irish emigrant, Daniel Byrne, but the path of true love doesn’t run smooth, due mostly to the actions of the villain of the piece, the scoundrel Patrick Crohan.
There are other facets of this well-made historical novel worth exploring. Aside from gender issues, and the relatively powerless position of women in 19th century society, tensions surrounding race and class raise their heads as well. There is a virulent strain of anti-Irish sentiment abroad in the air around Amherst (where there is no Catholic church), among the buttoned-down burghers, mostly voiced through the mouth of the stonily pompous Austin and, to a lesser extent, his wife Susan – although the latter’s prejudices may derive from nothing more than jealousy at Emily’s growing closeness to Ada. An evolving consequence of such attitudes is Emily’s increasing alienation from her immediate family, and their ‘closed, righteous, faces.’ A strong tendency to blame the victim is evident when Ada suffers her setbacks, which are no fault of her own, and are only resolved by the Dickinsons out of a desire to save face and maintain respectability, rather than any notion of humanitarian compassion.
Although it may take its own sweet time in getting going, Miss Emily gains considerable pace towards its finale, and is a satisfying and enjoyable read from one of Ireland’s more unsung talents, who deserves to make the step to a much wider readership.