Monday 19 August 2019

Emily Dickinson, baking, and me

Nuala O'Connor's novel 'Miss Emily' - just shortlisted for novel of the year at the Irish Book Awards - was inspired by her love of a certain poet

Inspiration: Nuala O’Connor says she got to know poet Emily Dickinson through reading her recipes and poetry. Photo: Andrew Downes
Inspiration: Nuala O’Connor says she got to know poet Emily Dickinson through reading her recipes and poetry. Photo: Andrew Downes

Taste in reading is a peculiar thing and clearly our personalities influence the writing we're drawn to. I'm melancholic and introverted, but sociable, and I like writing that has a certain moody, wistful air to it.

So it's maybe not a huge surprise that I have always loved Emily Dickinson's poetry, or that I chose to write a novel about one of the world's most famous recluses. There is something seductive to the writer about the idea of becoming a recluse. We imagine the Emily Dickinsons, Harper Lees and JD Salingers of this world happy in their writing spaces, wallowing in acres of welcome time. Time is all there is to the writer - it's what she needs. That and paper and pen, or laptop, are enough.

Emily Dickinson lived in her parents' home in Amherst, a college town in western Massachusetts, until her death aged 55. She was born in the house she died in, a modest yellow-brick mansion, built by her grandfather. Her father was an attorney and Emily was the middle child of three. Older brother Austin married Emily's dearest friend Sue Gilbert, but neither Emily nor younger sister Lavinia ever married.

There are all sorts of theories about the reasons for Emily's reclusiveness. Was she grieving a failed love affair? Was her health fragile; did she, in fact, have epilepsy?

The Dickinsons in general were a little eccentric. Though well-to-do and influential in the town of Amherst - they were college-founders, church-builders, railway-bringers - they marched to their own drum.

There is every reason to believe that Emily suffered with agoraphobia - from her late 20s she began to withdraw from social life and soon she wasn't even going to church, which must have been an exceptional move for a woman of her time and social status.

But we must also take into account that Emily was a writer and she knew that a husband and children would eat into her writing time. Even with a maid, the management of a large house - which no doubt marriage would have provided for Emily - was time consuming.

Emily, who wrote her 1,800 poems mostly in secret, could not have relished the thought of the reduced hours of reading time, thinking time and writing time.

I've been writing poetry and stories since I was a child, most likely in response to the books I devoured on a daily basis. There are no doubt a lot of books I read when I was young, and writing little, that influenced me without my knowing. Those works started that forward trajectory that meant I ended up as a full-time writer.

Emily Dickinson's investigative, terse poetry must have had a hand in my own obsession with concision, short lyrics and the rectangular shape to poems that I prefer. At school we read Dickinson's poetry from the age of 10 or so and I studied her work in depth for my Leaving Certificate.

From the early days of reciting her poems with their gloriously hymnal beats, to the devoted study of final exams, right through to adulthood, Emily Dickinson has been a companion poet to me.

I was a goth as a teenager - black and purple velvet clad, with bonkers crimped hair - and my tribe's preferred music and literature was on the sombre side of things: Herman Hesse, The Cure, Depeche Mode and, of course, Emily Dickinson. We weren't taught much of the lighter side of Emily - the love or nature poems she wrote - but we were seduced by her odd, intricate examinations of mental well-being and death.

Later in life, when I realised that Emily was a baker - as am I - I tracked down some of her recipes. I made her coconut cake, a sweet, buttery, simple cake that is now a staple in my house. Her gingerbread, which she used to lower in a basket from her bedroom window to local children, was not a huge success for me. My version turned out dense and tart, saved only by a mountain of sweetened whipped cream.

Still, my family politely ate it. Emily's enormous black cake, which in the original recipe calls for 19 eggs and five pounds of raisins, was more of a success. It's a Christmas pudding-like fruit cake, very moist and tasty. I quartered Emily's recipe but it still took almost four hours to bake through.

When writing Miss Emily, I also read her poetry daily, consumed the biographies and mused on the poet's life: her sparkling, wry voice in her letters, her loyalty to her friends, and her need for time alone to write.

I wondered about her connections with her various Irish maids and all that led me to write Miss Emily, which is essentially a novel about baking, friendship, writing, and the mistress-servant relationship, featuring a fictional Irish maid called Ada Concannon.

Through baking, poetry and the established facts of her life, I got to know Emily in an intimate way. No more nun-like recluse - here was a warm, friendly woman, writing forensic, insightful meditations on nature, life and death; a woman anyone would love to spend time with, if they were allowed through her door.

Irish Independent

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