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The Thing With Feathers

Adam Wyeth

Miss Emily, by Nuala O’Connor, Sandstone Press, 350 pp, €8.99, ISBN: 978-1910124550

Nuala O’Connor’s novel Miss Emily is more than a portrait of a poet executed with exquisite precision. It offers a fresh, enhancing approach to Dickinson’s inner life, showing a woman with zest and independence of mind.

One of the big mysteries that continues to dog Emily Dickinson critics and biographers is why one of America’s foremost poets spent most of her time indoors, never married and indeed hardly left her childhood home till the day she died? Was she depressed, agoraphobic or bipolar? While there is no conclusive evidence that she suffered from any such condition, this hasn’t stopped critics from drawing a myriad of conclusions. While speculation is well and good, the level of scrutiny and diagnoses in recent years has often tended to be reductive, taking from the work and the poet herself. So it is refreshing that in Nuala O’Connor’s meticulously honed new novel Miss Emily the story avoids any labels and instead offers a fresh, enhancing approach to Dickinson’s inner life – showing a woman with zest and independence of mind and an artist absorbed in her work and art.

This is not to say that Miss Emily doesn’t explore deeper and darker aspects. Everything in the novel is touched with a darkness that recoils and simmers under the surface of everyday life. While Miss Emily is fiction, O’Connor’s research on the poet is extensive and we get a strong sense of Dickinson’s true personality. Enthusiasts will recognise many poetical strands and biographical titbits woven into the narrative. As an accomplished poet herself, O’Connor is well versed in metaphor and telling the truth slant. Indeed it is her lyrical gift at skilfully lifting daily domestic activities into something almost mythical, rich with resonance and suggestion that makes Miss Emily such an engrossing read.

The novel opens in Amherst, Massachusetts. Homestead, the Dickinson family home, is in disarray after their long-term Irish maid has left to create a family of her own. The smell of burnt potatoes presages another Irish maid to follow. Each chapter alternates between Emily Dickinson and her maid-to-be Ada Concannon. We first meet Ada, on a sunny day in June, aged seventeen, soaking herself in the river Liffey, against her parents’ wishes. The bucolic image linked to the river goddess is the first of many interlaced mythological symbols. The river also signals a longer journey to follow across the water to the New World.

Despite the upstairs-downstairs scenario, Emily and Ada immediately strike up a close friendship, both sharing a sense of mischief and a love of baking. Although the American poet and Irish maid may appear to be poles apart the dual point of view creates some intriguing parallels and insights. Dickinson describes Ada as having, “a superior, petulant face, but when she smiles, she glows like a window opening on a bright day. I want to make her smile.” Does the final line offer a slight hint of something else desired, as well as friendship? The hidden suggestion also extends to the intimate relationship Dickinson has with her sister-in-law. Miss Emily loves to spend time with Ada and says how she admires the Irish, “ … how they spin a narrative around every small thing. I feel somewhat Irish in my core.” However, Emily’s brother Austin is less enamoured of Ada and offers the more common prejudicial attitude towards the Irish. “Do not be fooled by her mellifluousness — all Irish people lie … You have to understand that there is a certain island madness about the Irish; they are unhinged and vicious.”

At times the intimate friendship and psychological drama that unfolds have intimations of a Strindberg play. In fact, Strindberg’s similarly titled haunting masterpiece Miss Julie takes place in one domestic setting, mostly in the kitchen – as does Miss Emily – between the lady of the house and her servant. No doubt the author is more than aware of this relation and the similar title is a nod in the play’s direction.

It takes a writer of keen perception to portray and capture a life in a whole novel within a confined setting; O’Connor does so with remarkable tenacity and panache. Her sheer relish for rendering nineteenth century American domestic life and her gift for finding the mot juste brings the Dickinson home to life. “I am in the habit of this house, and it is in the habit of me,” Dickinson says. Homestead becomes almost a character itself. In Freudian analysis the home is a symbol of the self. Thus every item and room of the house can be seen as a different part of the poet’s psyche.

Exquisitely detailed descriptions of home care and cooking ripple and steam off every page. Every domestic moment is magnified with the crisp artistry of a Vermeer painting. But the level of intense, sensory detail displays more than just atmosphere. As well as conveying Dickinson’s intense and piercing perception, each description lends itself to an ever-deepening tapestry of patterns and symbolism, revealing the darker emotions and unconscious stirrings beneath. The zoom lens clarity and visual storytelling become a superb and subtle plot device foreshadowing traumatic events to come. Moreover, like so many period dramas, it is the stiff-collared, hemmed-in Puritanism that makes each scene all the more tantalising, as when Ada puts her lips to her admirer, Daniel’s, cup, to “drink back the lukewarm dregs of his tea”. As much as O’Connor does an assured job for capturing the language of the period, she avoids getting entangled in any antiquated purple prose. The carefully selected concrete details within descriptions are poetry enough.

This bright window into Dickinson’s private world also offers many insights into her poetical development. A key moment is when Dickinson decides to wear only white. “My very whiteness will be my muse,” she says. It acts as the foundation of her poetic vocation, much like an actor embodying the character in a play when he or she puts on the costume. She is born again. “Like a revenant,” her mother remarks. Rather than seeing Dickinson’s sartorial decision as some mental infliction, O’Connor shows it as a moment of artistic epiphany, turning Dickinson’s desire for crisp white clothing as a moment of metamorphosis. It is as if she has turned herself into a clean white page. Such epiphanic moments are well recorded with many major writers. For Synge, it was when he was encouraged by Yeats to go and live among the people of the west of Ireland, to learn their language and write about their ways. For Beckett it was the decision to write in French that allowed him to purify his prose and move out of Joyce’s overbearing shadow.

Instead of getting caught up in the impossible task of diagnosing the poet as having a mental illness, critics might be equally attentive of the mad world she retreated from. No man is an island, but all artists need to withdraw from the world to create their work. “Hope is the thing with feathers” is one of Dickinson’s most famous lines. It is that delicate, elusive thing in her work that continues to inspire succeeding generations. Executed with exquisite precision, Miss Emily is more than a portrait of a poet. Like a Dickinson poem itself, it is a rare bird of radiant plumage darting through the air, striking and transcendental but impossible to pin down.

1/4/2015

Adam Wyeth is an award-winning poet, playwright and essayist. His debut collection, Silent Music, was highly commended by the Forward Poetry Prize. His second book, The Hidden World of Poetry: Unravelling Celtic Mythology in Contemporary Irish Poetry, contains poems from Ireland’s leading poets followed by essays unpacking each poem and exploring its Celtic mythological references. His second poetry collection, The Art of Dying, will be published with Salmon in October 2016. He teaches creative writing online at adamwyeth.com and fishpublishing.com

 

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