Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor review – the secret life of Emily Dickinson
A fictional account of the lives of the poet Emily Dickinson and a family maid explores friendship and freedom
Friday 9 October 2015 17.00 BST
he ‘“Miss Emily” of the title is the 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. Into a meticulous re-creation of the Dickinson family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, Irish novelist Nuala O’Connor introduces a fictional maid-of-all-work, Ada Concannon, fresh off the boat from Dublin. In alternating first-person accounts by her two protagonists, O’Connor explores Dickinson’s strong capacity for friendship in spite of her impulse to withdraw from the company of others. Her defining openness to the world allows her (compels her, even) to ignore the conventions of class and to see in lowly Ada someone worth knowing. Living under the same roof, the two women find common ground in a love of baking – and Ada’s use of language, untutored but rich in Irish idiom, is a pleasure and stimulus to the poet’s ear. Lyndall Gordon’s 2010 book on Dickinson suggested that her reclusive lifestyle and even her insistence on wearing white dresses might be explained by a medical diagnosis, but here they are interpreted as an effort to free her imagination within self-imposed restrictions. Both women suffer a loss of freedom (Ada’s particularly harrowing) and, through their friendship, find a kind of escape as well.