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Researching Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor

Writing.ie | Magazine | Literary Fiction
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When I have the first draft of a novel complete, I like to travel to the places the book is set in to do on-the-spot research. There is something about walking the ground of the setting that helps cement the whole thing in my mind. By soaking in the flora, fauna, climate and architecture of a given place, I find ways to add richness and colour to my novel.

When I had completed a first draft of Miss Emily, my new novel about Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, I travelled to the USA to soak up the atmosphere in Emily’s hometown, Amherst, and its surroundings. I was going to Massachusetts to take up a short writing residency at an all-girls college in Longmeadow – Bay Path College – so I tagged my trip onto that.

It was October and the famed New England foliage was still in evidence – trees were just letting go of golden and burgundy leaves and the air was brisk. I arrived to Amherst jetlagged but giddy and walked up Main Street to stand outside Emily’s house, The Homestead – now one half of the Emily Dickinson Museum – and marvel at its bright, imposing beauty. I had spent the previous 15 months or so in this house in my mind and now here it was before me.

The imagination creates its own geography no matter how many photographs, diagrams, floor plans or maps we look at. When I entered Emily’s Homestead, I had to swirl things around in my head and re-order them to reflect reality. The north and south parlours were smaller than my imagination allowed, the entrance hall bigger; the Dickinson kitchen is no longer a kitchen but the museum shop; the dining room is not yet part of the tour; and Emily’s bedroom, with its four long windows, is even brighter than I thought.

My guide – I was lucky enough to be the only person on the tour – was an articulate, friendly man and, soon, his guiding and my research collided in a spirited back-and-forth about Emily and all of the Dickinsons. It was a privilege, and very moving, to walk the rooms of the yellow mansion, built by Emily’s grandfather, where the poet spent most of her life – she was born there and she died there.

An Italianate villa lies across the garden from The Homestead and is the other half of the museum. This was the home of Emily’s brother Austin and his wife Susan, who was Emily’s dearest friend. This is a house of atmosphere – it retains its Victorian décor and much of Austin and Sue’s paintings and furniture. It was very affecting to see the velvet suit of Emily’s beloved nephew Gib laid out on his bed – he died of typhoid aged just eight.

The Amherst History Museum owns Emily’s last surviving white dress and I had to see it, even though the Homestead displays a replica. The dress, known as a wrapper or house dress, is made of dimity, has handy pockets (for paper and pencil) and a row of mother-of-pearl buttons. It is housed in a glass case but you get a real sense of the petite Emily inside the dress, her arms pushing into those sleeves, her red hair making a lovely contrast against the white collar.

Amherst College has a Dickinson archive (much of it viewable online here). When I visited I got to see a lock of Emily’s extraordinarily bright red hair. It is not an Irish red but a shiny, deep-copper red. She described her hair, in a letter to a correspondent she had never met, as ‘bold like the chestnut bur’. It is lovely to imagine the poet’s hair out of the snood she wore, tumbling down her back in auburn waves.

The Amherst town library – the Jones Library – has an Emily Dickinson Room, which houses a large collection of Dickinson items, including an eclectic exhibition of Emily-related memorabilia. You can see, among many things, Emily’s original calling card, first editions of her posthumously published poetry collections and a set of cameo buttons that belonged to the poet.

Though not relevant to my research as such, I had to make a pilgrimage to Emily’s grave. West Cemetery is a tree-filled oasis and the Dickinson family plot, where Emily rests with her parents and sister, is bounded by a black wrought iron fence. Brother Austin is buried at Wildwood Cemetery. Fans leave mementos on and beside Emily’s grave, including toys, flowers, shells, coins and handwritten notes. I left a Saint Brigid’s cross (a plot point in the novel) and, on return visits, a photo of my daughter and a picture of a bird (Emily loved all natural things).

My research also took me the Houghton Library at Harvard University where I got to see the handwritten text of my favourite Emily poem ‘“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers’, as well as her original tiny cherrywood writing desk.

This novel is not just about Emily Dickinson – it’s a dual first person narrative about a fictional Irish maid of the Dickinson’s, Ada Concannon. I made Ada a cousin of one of the family’s real Irish maids, Maggie Maher, whom Emily described as ‘warm and wild and mighty’. Though from Dublin, Ada spent a lot of time with her maternal granny in Tipperary and so I went to the walled town of Fethard to explore its streets. In Ada’s time it was a bustling place with fourteen shoemakers, seven blacksmiths and ten bakers. It is a quieter place now. From Fethard, I drove the short distance to Killusty and Slievenamon, below which Ada’s people – and Maggie Maher’s – lived. Basking in its flora and fauna – pheasant, foxes, vetch – helped me recreate Ada’s time there in a way no amount of imagining could do.

There is a lot of joy in at-the-desk research, for sure, but nothing really beats the feeling of inhabiting the spaces your character knew, or of seeing their possessions and knowing they touched or wore them. My trip to Massachusetts was an enormous success. I have been back twice more to attend the Emily Dickinson International Society meeting (a small conference) and to re-connect with Emily and her place. Each time I go I learn something new about Emily and the Dickinsons; I buy more books about her; I walk the rooms of her beloved Homestead. Because once you commit to Emily, she never lets you go.

nualanichonchuir(c) Nuala O’Connor

About Miss Emily

The Dickinson household is saved from domestic chaos with the arrival of Ada Concannon, a “neat little Irish person, fresh off the boat”.  Amherst in the 1800’s is a pastoral environment for the homesick young maid who finds in the gifted middle child, Emily, a fellow feeling; they were born on the same day, they share a sense of mischief and a love of baking. Emily’s fledgling poetry and passion for words is her true vocation but as it begins to dominate her mind, she retreats from the small world around her and enters her infamous White Phase. The friendship that forms between the two women is tested when Ada’s personal safety and reputation is violated and Emily finds herself tasked with defending her maid against her own family and those she loves, with shocking consequences.

Miss Emily is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in East Galway. Already well-known under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, she has published four short story collections, the most recent Mother America appeared from New Island in 2012. Her third poetry collection The Juno Charm was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011 and Nuala’s critically acclaimed second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appeared April 2014, also from New Island; it was shortlisted for the Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. In summer 2015, Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. The book launches Friday 28th August in The Gutter Book Shop in Dublin, 6.30pm. All welcome! www.nualanoconnor.com

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