I have spent much of the previous year in this room, and all over the Dickinson house, if only in my mind. The writing of my novel, Miss Emily, about the poet and her Irish maid, brought me into The Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, over and over. As a girl, I recited ‘A Bird came down the Walk’ with actions, to amuse my sisters. Now I stand in the very bedroom of the very poet I loved – so much so that I specialised in her incisive, explosive poems for my final exams. Poetry brought me here. And a hunger to know how the reclusive poet conducted her seclusion. And baking too, as it happens.
Emily Dickinson was not truly the downbeat, morbidity-obsessed recluse of myth. Yes, as she grew older she secluded herself, but she was a devoted friend, and she took part in the domestic scene of The Homestead. Emily loved to bake, particularly cakes, and she would send them with a verse or recipe to her friends. She said to one: ‘People must have puddings.’
As part of the research for Miss Emily, I baked some of the poet’s recipes: Coconut Cake (now a favourite in my house); the gingerbread she famously made for local children and lowered in a basket from her upstairs window; and her gigantic Black Cake, a rich fruitcake that uses nineteen eggs and five pounds of raisins. As I baked I thought about Emily’s sassy, amusing voice in her letters, her commitment to her friends, and her need for solitary space in which to write. I wondered about her relationship with her various Irish maids – Maggie Maher, Margaret O’Brien, Rosina Mack – and, soon, I was writing a novel about baking, friendship, writing, and the mistress-servant relationship, featuring a fictional Irish maid called Ada Concannon.
Emily’s life is reasonably well documented – there are many books about her and I read a lot of them. But, for the sake of my own writing practice, I had to counterbalance her with a fictional character; I needed that novelistic freedom. It was more satisfying to me to invent a new Irish maid to slot into the year I had chosen to concentrate on – 1866 – a year where in fact the Dickinsons had no maid at all.
My research took many forms: reading the poetry and biographies, poring over pictures of Emily’s belongings in online archives – the family’s white, gold-rimmed china; Emily’s garnet and pearl brooch; her gold and citrine letter seal; the blue shawl she wore. I researched many topics including how to make butter (I bought a glass churn and made some); the use of remedies such as sarsaparilla, calomel and tansy; and Irish superstitions (Ada believes in signs and portents).
When I had a first draft of Miss Emily completed, I visited Amherst and went to the poet’s house and her brother’s next door, both of which make up the Emily Dickinson Museum. I saw her white dress in the Amherst History Museum and I went to Harvard University, to view Emily’s original cherrywood desk. I joined the Emily Dickinson International Society (EDIS) and met fellow fans at my first meeting which, coincidentally, took place in Amherst.
And although Miss Emily is published now, and I’m busy writing and editing my fourth novel, I am not finished with Emily Dickinson at all – once you fall hard for her, she will not let you go. As part of my US book tour, I return to Amherst for the third time this August to read from my novel at the EDIS conference. And I am still buying books about Emily, still obsessively reading her poetry and finding new things there. I even got a tattoo in her honour. Because it is so easy, when you immerse yourself in Emily’s company, to simply ‘gather Paradise’ and dwell there.