Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 8, 2011

What I’m Reading: Maid as Muse by Aife Murray

Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language by Aife Murray opened my eyes to some ways a poet listened and composed. Aife Murray is devoted both to Emily Dickinson’s poems and understanding how they came to be, and this book is a record of rigorous research. She charts Emily Dickinson’s productivity through the years, and notes that she wrote the most poems when the family had good household help. Emily’s father always craved her bread and gingerbread, and she never left the kitchen for long, but when there were reliable cooks and help lighting fires, carrying water, and buying groceries, it seems she wrote more poems, particularly during the seventeen years when Margaret Maher, called Maggie within the house, was around.

By Aife’s Murray account, Maggie was worth the work the Dickinsons did to lure her away from the Boltwoods, another respected Amherst family. In this book, she’s given respect for filling the oil lamps Emily wrote by, and saving grocery receipts, chocolate wrappers, old envelopes, and brown paper bags that Emily often composed upon. Daily conversations with Maggie may have affected the language of Dickinson’s poems. Aife Murray traveled to Ireland to hear pronunciations she speculates made rhymes and rhythms in Dickinson’s poems that wouldn’t otherwise be heard. “The queen of mimicry took an improvisational page from her servants’ books. Even her genius for ambiguity could have found influence among servants for whom the art of evasion and ambiguity were part survival strategy and, at least in the case of the Irish, part of their legal tradition.”

Perhaps most importantly, Emily stored the booklets of poetry she stitched together in Maggie’s trunk, and she asked Maggie to burn these when she died. Maggie, who’d seen the care put into the work, did not do as she was bidden: if she had, I wouldn’t be writing this post, wouldn’t, like so many of us, have read these poems. “It was a spirited, defiant act…Appealing to superiors, in this case Susan and Austin, is what would be expected from a servant.” (p. 204) Maggie found more poems she brought to Mabel Loomis Todd, who she cleaned and cooked for from 3 P.M. to 8 P.M. every day, at no charge, while Mabel Loomis Todd prepared poems for the first printed book. It was also Maggie who provided the daguerreotype we have of Emily Dickinson taken when she was sixteen. Emily’s family didn’t care for the picture and destroyed their copies.

In her will, Emily Dickinson wrote the names of six Irish workmen she wanted as her pallbearers. This unusual request was respected, though Emily’s brother, Austin, asked four friends he considered more respectable to accompany them. Aife Murray interviewed descendants, and walked with one through St. Mary’s cemetery in Northampton, Mass. to find Maggie’s grave. She’s given talks and a popular tour around Amherst, which ended at Emily’s gravesite. She asked how many there were related to the pallbearers. Forty proud people raised their hands.

I loved this book, which prodded me to read more about Emily Dickinson, after a break to catch up on some novels. For Poetry Friday posts, please visit Elaine at Wild Rose Reader



  1. WOW!
    Some great EMILY stuff, here—thanks for the share!

  2. Wow from me as well. While I often muse on what makes us humans the way we are, I’m less likely to wonder what makes individual people who they are–never been a big biography reader. But this is completely fascinating and changes everthing (not a LOT, but still) that I have understood about Emily. I especially like the idea that being surrounded by Irish accents affected her poetics. Thank you, Jeannine, for condensing it for me.
    P.S. It’s 92 degrees here; isn’t it time to take off your scarf? : )

  3. Emily D.
    How fascinating! I had to look in the indexes of the two Dickinson bios I own, and Maggie is given but a glancing mention. There’s a book in here for you Jeannine!!!

    Wow! What a great back story! I agree — there’s a book here for you!!
    One of my next books up is THE STORY OF CHARLOTTE’S WEB. This sounds like it needs to be in my pile!

  5. Wow! This looks fascinating. Putting in my request at the library.

  6. That was truly fascinating, thanks for sharing!

  7. Re: WOW!
    Glad you enjoyed, Kevin! There seems always more to learn about Emily!

  8. Of course I love biographies, maybe to excess, but I’m glad you found these nuggets intriguing.
    And of course you’re right it’s time to ditch the scarf. My husband suggests I do seasonal photos… but somehow that slips down the to-do list.

  9. Re: Emily D.
    Well there’s so much out there about ED, but thanks for the thought. I think the standard story is that her sister, Lavinia, wanted to make sure the work was preserved, which I expect is true, but eclipses a whole story and life. So interesting how someone who’s a footnote in one book can electrify another one.

    Thanks, Mary, Lee. My husband recently picked up that book about E.B. White and has offered to share. I hope you like it! I’m one of the many who thinks Charlotte’s Web is as perfect as a book can be.

  11. It was truly a touching tale of the relationship between Emily and Maggie, and of biographer and her subjects. I enjoyed reading some about the author’s passionate process.

  12. It was fun to share a book I enjoyed so much — thank you!

  13. Oh, for a maid!

  14. So THAT’S what I’m missing… good household help. 🙂
    Actually, I find housework to be essential to my writing process. When I’m troubling over words, ideas, plot, it really helps me to vacuum, mop, sort socks. Anything mundane and repetitive. (I’m actually afraid I have done a disservice to my sons because I need the work and oftentimes do their chores for them before they get a chance!)

  15. Dori, yes, maids sound lovely, but of course back c. 1870 there was also the daily lugging of wood, coal, water produce, etc, sewing, ironing, hand-washing and clothes hanging…Amazing what some women got done in addition.
    Irene, okay we’re going to have to do a flow chart on how clean the house and how many words. But I can see how doing tasks with concrete accomplishments in the real world can refresh. I wish I were more inclined. Though you’re right, I hope future daughters-in-laws don’t curse you: good thing you’re so wonderful in every other way.

  16. I loved reading this, Jeannine, and not just because I’m the great-granddaughter of an Irish house servant. I wonder what Maggie and Emily talked about in the kitchen? Everyday life can be good for poetry (and prose), but sometimes drudgery is just drudgery, and it’s good to have help. Especially the kind of help that saves the poems and pictures when we’re gone.

  17. I’m putting this book on hold–it sounds fascinating. I’m always interested in the ways people are affected by the people they meet and become close to.

  18. There are a lot of household objects in ED’s poems, as well, of course, as all the garden references. Aife Murray makes a case for the Irish rhythm as well as vocabulary slipping into the poems. Maggie’s help was certainly essential, if perhaps not appreciated enough: while Austin assured her that she’d be taken care of in old age, that didn’t come from the Dickinson’s, though they had no heirs, which is sad. It’s good to have this tribute.

  19. That’s one of the book’s themes — how we lean on each other, change each other — and sometimes how that gets overlooked.

  20. This is so cool. I visited her grave and it was covered in flowers and little slips of paper. I left a note there…

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  22. This has nothing at all to do with your post, but a little birdie reminded me of a very special occasion..
    Wishing you much joy, many wonderful surprises, and a well-deserved abundance of happy memories. Your friendship is a gift to me, each and every day.

  23. Popping in to wish you a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY! May this day and the coming year be filled with love, laughter, and much delicious cake, Jeannine.

  24. I am sure ED appreciated your note. It’s inspiring how much she is revered. Apparently they leave the light on in her old bedroom at night…

  25. xoxoxo back to you dear Melodye! We are enjoying a gorgeous summer day.

  26. Thanks so much for popping in, Tracy. Love laughter and cake are all very welcome!

  27. Jeannine, thanks for your perceptive comments about my book.

    • Thank you for writing this book! A lot has stayed with me (as so many other things come and go).

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