- Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language
A couple decades ago the common wisdom in Dickinson studies held that Emily Dickinson was fortunate to have lived an elite life that offered her countless hours of leisure she could devote to writing; some years later the common wisdom shifted so that Dickinson was seen as a woman who worked long days performing duties such as caring for her mother and baking, her literary output accordingly seen as nearly miraculous, stolen from midnight hours. Aife Murray sides with neither of these outlooks in Maid as Muse but instead offers a fresh, savvy picture of Emily Dickinson that compasses and mediates both. The Dickinson she portrays was [End Page 110] privileged and had the luxury of performing the tasks of her choosing even as she worked alongside domestic maids who performed the many onerous chores necessary to running a nineteenth-century household. Murray puts forward an intricate and vivid perspective on the poet's day-to-day life, a perspective in which literary arts and domestic arts intertwine. She finds an Emily Dickinson we have never seen before.
Murray does this by mixing modes of discourse, offering traditional archival research and interviews of descendents of Homestead workers, interspersed with occasional scenes of Murray's imagining. These created scenes, noted and italicized, present an intuitive interpretation of the information she amasses. Murray's scholarly sleuthing turns up incisive results, and she follows those results to create occasional careful fictions that she argues must be pursued in order to fill the historical gaps in studies of underrepresented populations. Part biography, part literary criticism, part historical retrieval, part imaginings, part personal narrative of a research journey undertaken to glean a sense of her own Irish past, the book undertakes search and research, historical information remaining paramount, fictionalized sections enhancing the historical information.
Showing how life and language in the Homestead were matters of coexistence between Emily Dickinson and servants, Murray focuses primarily on Margaret Maher, an Irish immigrant who worked for the family from 1869 to 1899. The intrepid Margaret Maher, called "Maggie" by the family and mentioned often in Dickinson's correspondence, proved important to the poet as confidante, protector, independent spirit, and co-worker in a day-to-day existence of camaraderie that crossed class lines. Murray broadens the angle of inquiry to include other servants as well—immigrant Irish, immigrant English, African American, and Native American, including some eighty servants who were hired at the Homestead (18). Servants affected the community's social structure as a whole, as she demonstrates when she gives a dishy account of a town's power play between two prominent families, the Boltwoods and the Dickinsons, both of whom fought to keep Margaret Maher as their employee.
Murray posits the Homestead kitchen as the "generative site" of Dickinson's poetry, (23) where, working shoulder to shoulder with Maher and others, the poet would occasionally stop her task at hand to jot down lines of verse on a chocolate wrapper or a shopping list, interacting with many people as Maher's nieces stopped by, nephews arrived to convey messages, the stableman delivered fresh milk, or a Native American woman paused at the door to sell baskets. Finding an alternative to the society of the parlor, Dickinson in the kitchen heard the Irish, African American, and Native American patterns of speech that would have [End Page 111] thrilled her, given her self-proclaimed "Vice for Voices." In the kitchen she spent time in the "most creative room in the house" (99).
Too, Murray reminds us of the unrelenting physicality of domestic chores. One of the most surprising discoveries of the book arises from Murray's correlation of Dickinson's pattern of poetic output not to waxing and waning periods of inspiration, but to the waxing and waning pattern of servants hired at the Homestead. Servants made Dickinson's writing possible because their labor alleviated the unceasing toil of housework. Throughout Maid as Muse we gain a newly urgent...