Emily’s House
April 22, 2021

Book Review

Emily’s House

Amy Belding Brown

Irish Immigrant Margaret Maher was Emily Dickinson’s maid and confidante. Did Margaret honor Emily’s only wish?

Amherst, Massachusetts, 1869. Edward Dickinson is a lawyer, treasurer, and founder (among other titles), who has a reputation of being disagreeable and haughty. Margaret is about to “take the measure of the man for herself since she is to be working in his house.” It was supposed to be just a temporary position, but she is forced to postpone her dream of moving to California. Soon enough, she warms up toward the Dickinson women, including strangest one – Emily. Margaret never heard of a woman writing poems, which doesn’t sound proper at all, but that’s not what makes Emily strange. It’s her hiding behind the closed doors in her room most of the time, and hiding from people in general. “She had her ways of disappearing, she was like a ghost.” Nevertheless, Emily warms up to Margaret like to no other maid before. The layers of mystery surrounding Emily start to peel off with Margaret even noticing Emily’s eyes sparking with mischief at times.

When Emily loses faith in her talent, Margaret is there rescuing Emily’s poems from the laundry or from fire. When Emily loses faith in printing her poems, Margaret is there to sort them and to keep them together. When Emily jests she’d rather have her poems as ashes than being exposed to others, Margaret makes sure the jest doesn’t become reality.

Margaret’s is an Irish immigrant story, woven with brief actions of Irish fight for independence, including the radical approach of the Fenians and their dynamite bombings. Margaret is of restless nature, not one meant for doing man’s bidding and birthing his children, though one man makes her heart skip a beat. Once planning on staying single and free, now she struggles with her decision.

From the reader’s perspective, it’s a pure joy to follow her thoughts and what rattles her at times, and her finding fulfillment in a different kind of adventure, adventures of the spirit, “and the hours with Emily on late-winter afternoons were mighty adventures, to be sure.”

Emily’s House is written with awe-inspiring prose, peppered with humor and fleshed-out heroines. Wonderful depiction of two strong women, one a solitary following her talent, the other restless cherishing her independence, both ahead of their time. Beautiful storytelling transports readers to a different time, well-depicted with properness between social classes, with convictions of two women reaching for something that seemed to be out of reach at the time; and struggles of immigrants which seems to be timeless. Authentic voice of Margaret connects readers directly to Emily, you get to know Emily personally and when the death claims her life it pierces you as it does Margaret.

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