From USA Today bestselling author of Flight of the Sparrow Amy Belding Brown comes an evocative new novel about Emily Dickinson’s longtime maid, Margaret Maher, whose bond with–and ultimate betrayal of–the poet ensured Dickinson’s work would live on.
Massachusetts, 1869. Margaret Maher has never been one to settle down. At twenty-seven, she’s never met a man who has tempted her enough to relinquish her independence to a matrimonial fate, and she hasn’t stayed in one place for long since her family fled the potato famine a decade ago.
When Maggie accepts a temporary position at the illustrious Dickinson family home in Amherst, it’s only to save up enough for a ticket west to join her brothers in California. Maggie never imagines she will form a life-altering friendship with the eccentric, brilliant Miss Emily or that she’ll stay at the Homestead for the next thirty years.
In this richly drawn novel, Amy Belding Brown explores what it is to be an outsider looking in, and she sheds light on one of Dickinson’s closest confidantes–perhaps the person who knew the mysterious poet best–whose quiet act changed history and continues to influence literature to this very day.
A Conversation with Amy Belding Brown, Author of Emily’s House
What inspired you to write EMILY’S HOUSE?
For decades, I’ve been fascinated by the life and works of Emily Dickinson, drawn to her jewel-like poems and eccentric reclusiveness. My aunt, a great admirer of Dickinson’s work, was a poet and storyteller who first brought Emily alive in my imagination when I was young. It was she who told me I share an ancestor with Emily on my father’s side. A graduate of Amherst College and native son of nearby Northampton, my father took our family to visit Amherst many times. Though it wasn’t open to the public in those days, I was always intrigued by the mysterious brick house behind the fence on Main Street. When I began researching a novel based on Dickinson’s life, I thought Emily would be the leading character. Then I read Maid as Muse by Aífe Murray and encountered the story of the remarkable Margaret Maher. As soon as I learned that she had refused to burn Dickinson’s poems, I knew I’d found my protagonist — an energetic, ambitious, and insightful Irish immigrant. A woman Emily described as wild and warm and mighty and one I wanted readers to meet.
How did you approach the research for this book?
I began by reading all the material I could get my hands on about Emily Dickinson and 19th century Amherst. I soon discovered there are dozens of different takes on Dickinson. Though she’s one of the world’s literary greats, she’s still veiled in mystery to this day, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know the true Emily. But for my novel, I had to make some decisions about who she really was and, most importantly, view her through the eyes of my protagonist. So my research into the Irish immigrant experience in 19th century Massachusetts was vital. I looked into the particulars of Margaret Maher’s life, studying the syntax of Hiberno-English speech, what her childhood in County Tipperary must have been like, and the experience of Irish immigrants in Massachusetts in the mid-1800’s. I researched what it took to skillfully manage a household in the 19th century. I visited Amherst and the Emily Dickinson Homestead and sought out the location of Kelley Square where Margaret’s family lived, using old maps, charts and town records to immerse myself in the Amherst of Margaret’s time. Once I start writing, I continue to research, guided by questions that arise as I go along. So my research is both driven by and informing the story as I go.
Was there anything you learned about Dickinson’s work that you didn’t know before writing this novel?
I was surprised at how difficult I found much of Dickinson’s poetry. Like many, when I was young I read some of her relatively accessible “nature poems,” and later I studied some of her more famous ones, guided by Dickinson scholars. But when writing the novel I read hundreds I’d never encountered before. I was dazzled by her word choices, but frequently confused about her meaning and intention. I found that I could only read a very few at a time, that they need to be taken in small doses if I’m going to absorb them.
Without giving anything away, what do you hope readers will take away from reading EMILY’S HOUSE?
While I’m writing my novels I actually don’t think much about what I want readers to get out of them. I’m focused on discovery — finding the universal truths embedded in the history and I kind of expect readers will do the same. I came away from writing EMILY’S HOUSE with a new appreciation for challenges of the immigrant experience and the hardships and exploitation frequently suffered by domestic workers. It’s all too easy to overlook the profound influence servants have had on the lives of their employers — and on our nation’s history. The Irish immigrant, Margaret Maher, recognized Emily Dickinson’s literary genius and it’s thanks to her we have access to the work of America’s greatest poet. The world of literature would be much poorer without her courage and insight. Yet in most accounts, Mabel Loomis Todd gets credit for sharing Dickinson’s poetry with the world. I believe that, once Margaret saved them from the fire, the poems would have been discovered and published sooner or later, with or without Mrs. Todd. And it leaves me wondering how many other immigrants and servants over the years have taken similarly pivotal actions that have been credited to others.
About the Author
Amy Belding Brown is the author of historical novels, including the USA Today bestselling Flight of the Sparrow, and Mr. Emerson’s Wife. A New England history enthusiast, Amy was infused at an early age with the region’s outlook and values. A graduate of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, she received her MFA from Vermont College and now lives in rural Vermont with her husband, a UCC minister and spiritual director.