Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily is the first book that’s caused me to miss my bedtime since I was a girl – which reminded me how much I used to love to read novels! When I was young I always had my nose in a book, and often read through the night. I felt like a kid again, sitting propped in bed reading into the wee hours, tired but unable to close the cover. How fun and perfect!
Miss Emily is historic fiction, set in the home of Emily Dickinson. Emily figures prominently but young Irish immigrant Ada Concannon, the Dickinson family’s maid, is the true protagonist. Both of the characters and the story are compelling, and the writing is flawless.
For me, Miss Emily was not only entertaining, it was also a cautionary tale.
As a self-employed artist who has worked from a home studio for more than two decades, I took a particular interest in Emily Dickinson’s fear of leaving her house.
“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.” (p 52)
Let’s just say, I get it.
“There is a poem forming in my gut, and in order to release it, I must be alone.” (p 14)
Artists need solitude as much as they need air, but isolation erodes social skills—which, for a naturally shy and overly sensitive Fragile Flower like myself, feeds social fears. When a social interaction go awry, the bad experience haunts me, chasing away creativity, so social encounters are especially risky.
I sympathize when Emily refuses to come out, even when coaxed repeatedly by her only friend Susan, who is married to her brother and lives right next door.
“I do not wish to wound Susan, but one as sociable as she perhaps cannot fully understand why strangers discombobulate me so much. I simply do not feel comfortable in a throng; my head gets addled and I long for peace. And Sue may not comprehend either the writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat, the solace of it. I am so entirely happy in my own company that I rarely feel the need for anyone else, and when I do, I like to choose my companions wisely.” (p 30)
Chapters written from Emily’s point of view are sandwiched between Ada’s chapters, a pattern that highlights the contrasting personalities of the unlikely friends. Although she is kind and exhibits courage when it counts, Emily lives an austere, fairy-tale life, not only confined to the family house but also very much inside her own head. By contrast, Ada LIVES LIFE in a very real way. She has to be courageous on a daily basis, because she’s out there in the world. And the world can be dangerous.
My personality definitely leans in Emily’s direction. I overthink everything, I live in my head, and I have a massive fear of making plans. Social anxieties are partly to blame, but my inability to predict my work schedule—which can get very hairy at the drop of a hat—is the biggest culprit. Reading Miss Emily made me wonder if my free-lance lifestyle has turned me into an agoraphobe. Thankfully, Tim Ferriss’s recent TED Talk about Stoicism and facing fears arrived in my e-mail inbox and saved the day. If you are self-employed and fear taking time off to enjoy your life—or if fear is holding you back from anything at all—you might find it helpful, too! Click here to watch.
Thankfully I’m not 100% Emily. There is some Ada in me, too. I love to travel and—like Ada—I moved across an ocean to begin a new life. I have a husband, a son, and responsibilities that force me out of the house, so I couldn’t give in to the agoraphobic life even if I wanted to. 🙂
Nuala O’Connor’s decision to tell the story from Emily’s and Ada’s points of view in alternating chapters shines a light on her mastery of VOICE. In Emily’s chapters, we enter her mind and experience her worldview—not only her thoughts, emotions, and reactions to circumstances, but also her motives. The same is true for Ada’s chapters. Ms. O’Connor makes this look effortless. If you’re new to writing, like me, you know that this is no small feat.
Check out this beautiful snippet from one of Ada’s chapters. If this doesn’t compel you to read Miss Emily, I don’t know what will:
“I clear the table and run my finger across the place where his mouth met the rim of the cup. I put my lips to that same place and drink back the lukewarm dregs of his tea.” (p 106)