by Nuala O'Connor
Release Date: July 14th 2015
2015 Penguin Books
Ebook Edition; 256 Pages
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher
3.5 / 5 Stars
Concannon has just been hired by the respected but eccentric Dickinson
family of Amherst, Massachusetts. Despite their difference in age and
the upstairs-downstairs divide, Ada strikes up a deep friendship with
Miss Emily, the gifted elder daughter living a spinster’s life at home.
But Emily’s passion for words begins to dominate her life. She will wear
only white and avoids the world outside the Dickinson homestead. When
Ada’s safety and reputation are threatened, however, Emily must face
down her own demons in order to help her friend, with shocking
Miss Emily is a thought-provoking novel about social standing, immigration, friendship, prejudice, and loyalty set in the nineteenth century. Based partly on the life of Emily Dickinson and partly on the challenges faced by Ada, a young Irish immigrant trying to forge a new life in Massachusetts, the novel alternates point of view between the two women as they navigate through society and face difficulties in a world that frowns on a friendship between them. I actually enjoyed the story very much, but was disappointed in the lack of discussion on Emily's poetry and thought the story focused much more on Ada's life than on Emily's.
What I really enjoyed in this novel was the emotional pull I felt from the two main characters as they narrated their stories. Despite the fact that each woman grew up in quite different circumstances, they complemented each other rather well, and became quite good friends through contemplation and hard work. I am not wholly familiar with Emily's biographical details, so I found it quite interesting that she liked to bake and often sneaked into the kitchen looking for sweets. Feeling quite isolated from society, due to a variety of reasons the book did not really make clear, Emily bonded with Ada as they shared stories and tales and traditions; Emily was quite sensitive to others and understood Ada's feelings of isolation in a society that treated her differently because she is an Irish immigrant. In fact, there were quite a few references by Emily's brother Austin as to how the upper classes felt towards immigrants, in general, and the comments were a bit derogatory in nature. I found it quite interesting that they maintained a type of friendship despite all of the negativity that surrounded them, and even that Emily would be open to such a friendship. It just made me more curious about her, and I am looking forward to reading some biographical material about her life.
What I did find interesting was the references to Emily's sexuality and the idea that she had feelings for her sister-in-law. In the novel it was quite clear of its existence as I don't think even women of the nineteenth century behaved that way towards one another. To me, it makes no difference whatsoever as I really like her poetry, and that is what matters to me, I just thought it was interesting; the 19th century code of conduct is so different from ours that behaviour is difficult to interpret as it is hard to separate our century from the world in which Emily inhabits. And this is where historical fiction can be so challenging as most of the characters we see in this novel were real people with documented facts, but the thoughts and feelings are the writer's so it is difficult to keep a balance. I do feel the author did a great job making the characters seem real without compromising the integrity of what we know about them; the only thing I would have liked is to have learned more about Emily's poetry (copyright issue?) and a bit more about her life, which this novel did not deliver.
I do feel like the plot was a bit weak, in the sense that it was mostly about Ada. If you took out the chapters that were in Emily's POV, I don't think it would change the novel too much, other than you would miss a couple of pieces of information. It was also not hard to see where things with Patrick were going and I was sad to see this happen. I do understand it was to point out that women were often blamed for things that were not their fault, and the situation was definitely handled quite realistically, I also felt like it was trite and too easy as a solution as well. I have to admire Ada as it would take a lot of courage to deal with the situation the way she did, and I really liked how Emily dealt with it too; two very different women handling a situation from two different social standings. I just couldn't help but question the whole thing as I was reading.
Miss Emily was interesting to read as you get two viewpoints from two different social standings happening in the same household. I do feel like Emily was treated as some type of frailer person, and was quite happy to see her stand up for herself and for others as I can't believe someone who wrote all of that poetry could be so meek and mild. She seemed to have a good grasp on society and her place in it, and I quite liked that. I did feel quite strongly that the plot followed Ada and her exploits however, leaving Emily's chapters more for contemplation and brooding. The atmosphere of the time period was quite good, and I definitely enjoyed immersing myself in the setting; as for the plot, well-written, but thought it was lacking a little something.