Revealing Emily Dickinson through her feisty Irish maid
Nuala O’Connor has found a novel way into the life of the reclusive poet
Nuala O’Connor: ‘Dickinson is a companion poet for me, she’s been there all my life.’ Photograph: Rua Photography
When a writer moves easily between novels, short stories and poetry, writing on a particular subject in one form generally gets it out of their system.
Nuala O’Connor is a lifelong admirer of American poet Emily Dickinson, and so it seemed obvious to explore the poet’s life in a poem – or so she thought. The poem was written, O’Connor moved on, but couldn’t shake off the sense that there was more to be said.
“Dickinson is a companion poet for me, she’s been there all my life, even before we studied her and [Patrick] Kavanagh for the Leaving Cert. I was a goth, so I was into the darkness of poems like Because I Could Not Stop For Death or I Felt a Funeral in my Brain. We were fed the angsty reclusive poems on the curriculum, but later discovered all her poems about love and nature. As a poet, I like the short, sharp lyrical nature of her work. I love concision.”
O’Connor also kept discovering more about Dickinson: the sheer volume of her work (she wrote about 1,800 poems) and that she didn’t seek publication – only 10 poems were published in her lifetime.
Her family also employed Irish servants over the years, which forms the basis of Miss Emily, which has just been nominated for novel of the year for the 2015 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. “The poem was written, but her story obsessed me, so I tiptoed back and forth around it.” Why? “It felt really audacious, because she’s such an American icon.”
If a writer’s subject is a real person, there is huge pressure to create an authentic portrait of them. Historical fiction comes with its own burden: research, library visits and fact-checking are standard before a word has been written. There’s also a danger of over-trawling before starting a project, and having to tunnel out from under piles of notes. “Yes, I research as I go, because I once tried to write a book about a German artist and learnt a lot from that. Even if it’s a real person you have to leave room for the imagination, so I eventually put that book aside. I love women’s history, social history, and stories that are not visible in the records as such. It’s so interesting the way Emma Donoghue plucks ordinary women from history and gives them a voice.”
O’Connor – who for a long time used the Irish translation of her name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir – has been publishing work for over a decade. She began with short stories and poems, before her first novel, You, appeared in 2010. But it was the short-story collection Mother America that brought her to wider attention.
Last year, The Closet of Savage Mementos dealt with an entire spectrum of motherhood, including unplanned pregnancy. Set partly in Scotland, it was autobiographical territory for O’Connor – something an author can use to funnel into their work, or run a mile from. “Well, a project comes into your sightline; you choose to go after it or not.”
Despite her concerns about Emily’s ongoing stature, O’Connor went after the story of Dickinson, focusing on the growing friendship between her and an Irish maid, Ada Concannon. In 19th-century America, huge numbers of young Irish women worked in domestic service, and a reader might assume that Ada is also based on someone real.
“No, she’s fictional, but the Dickinsons had an Irish maid for years called Maggie Maher, so I made Ada a cousin of hers. In 1866 the family didn’t have a maid, so it was intentional to set the book then.”
Such attention to detail is fastidious by any novelist’s standards and enhances the story – and our perception of Emily.
There are framed pictures of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot in Dickinson’s writing room, because her father – who didn’t like “women of letters” – still bought books for his daughter.
“Emily loved the Brontës and Dickens . . . she was very aware of contemporary British literature. Periodicals would come via post to the house and she read reviews, but interestingly she didn’t read Walt Whitman. There’s a sense she deliberately avoided him as the big American poet.”
To get a further sense of the family and her subject, O’Connor went to visit the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is now a museum.
“The first time I went, I was first in line outside the door when it opened at 10am. It was just me and the guide on the tour so we had this really animated two-hour conversation. When I went into the room where Emily wrote, I actually couldn’t speak. I was so moved, to be in a space that had only been in in my head. It has been consistently restored, right down to the wallpaper, which is based on a scrap that was found. The second time I visited, the same guide brought me to secret parts of the house; ones not open to the public. It had a huge effect on me, to see what views she could see.”
Ada is an active foil to Emily’s reclusiveness and O’Connor was wise to focus the story on her. She is also an anomaly: the happy emigrant, who left Ireland and never looked back. Maggie Maher (the real Irish maid employed by the Dickinsons) was considered part of the family and helped Emily conceal her poems in a trunk. The only photo of the poet survives because Maher rescued it and, when Emily died, six Irish labourers carried her coffin.
In the contemporary world, how have the legions of Dickinson academics and admirers responded? “I was invited to read at the Emily Dickinson International Society conference and the audience was very warm. They knew I wouldn’t have included things that she wouldn’t have done and that I approached the book with great love and respect. There are still gaps in Emily’s life and I can’t stop buying books about her.”
Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor is published by Sandstone Press