Persephone Book No. 123: Emmeline by Judith Rossner

A forum for Persephone readers where we write about a new book every month.

The Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell Massachusetts rates 4.5 stars on Trip Advisor. It has earned a Certificate of Excellence as a tourist venue. ‘This former textile mill is a reminder of the changes the Industrial Revolution brought to Lowell and to America.’ It offers ‘an insider’s look at life in the mills’, summer ‘day camps’ are advertised, the most popular being (with apparently no sense of irony) ‘the Boott Camp’, and local coffee shops serve Boott Mill Breakfast Sandwiches. By way of an introduction for the younger visitor, the nearby Industrial History Centre posts an online game, in which ‘you pretend to be Eliza Paige, a farm girl who has just come to Lowell, a brand new industrial city on the Merrimack River’: the player is invited to make a series of choices on behalf of Eliza, each of which ‘has a consequence and leads to new choices and a new future for her’. I tried two different paths, the first and more adventurous path led to the farm girl becoming a homeopathic doctor, the second, more conservative, to her returning home to the family farm and taking ownership, following the timely death of her father and the unexpected departure of her brothers. Good for Eliza, one and two. In reality, few mill girls would have been familiar with the notion of life choices.

 

 

Lowell Boott cotton mills

Lowell Boott cotton mills

 

‘Reading around’ Emmeline, I came across. for the first time. the vividly expressive American word ‘hardscrabble’, used to describe life typical of that of the early New England settlers, struggling to make a living from poor soil, in a hard climate, the men (and boys) finding outside work where they could, the women (and girls) toiling all hours in the home. In addition to the daily exhaustion, the very sound of the word brings to mind not only the scraping of the plough on rocky terrain, and the spade on a stony vegetable bed, but the scratch of a worn scrubbing brush, and the itchy discomfort of coarse homespun cloth on bare skin. In the 1830s, an agricultural low point, The Lowell Mill ‘recruiting officers’ would have had little difficulty filling their crudely built wagons with young women willing to leave their villages for a glimpse of city life, a comfortable bed, regular meals and a decent wage to send home.

The fantasy peddled by the museums to attract visitors is not unlike the early nineteenth century ‘job descriptions’ designed to recruit the vast workforce needed for the new textile mills. Francis Cabot Lowell had seen water powered spinning and weaving machines in Lancashire: his professed aim was to recreate these, with better working conditions, decent lodging ‘supervised by women of good standing’, and opportunities for self-improvement for his employees: libraries, evening classes and lecture series. Young women, accustomed to hard work at home, would be offered good wages, from $1.85 to $3.00 per week – ‘the highest in the country’, for women (less than half the men’s wage).

But as much as $1.25 could be kept back for board and lodging. Earning at most $2.00 per week, most girls would be expected to send money home to support their families, or help towards their brothers’ college education. As for their own improvement, working a 73 hour week, the mill girls, some as young as 13, could have had little time, and less energy, to take advantage of any educational opportunities for themselves. In November 1836 The Harbinger, a Massachusetts journal ‘devoted to social and political progress’, sent some reporters to the Lowell Mills. They found the girls so exhausted after 13 hours a day of close attention and monotonous labour, that ‘they go to bed soon after their evening meal and endeavour by a comparatively long sleep to resuscitate their weakened frames to the toil of the coming day.’ So much for improving lectures. They were sleeping two to a bed, six in a room. There was no privacy or peace in the boarding house, and the noise in the mills was infernal. Comparing the conditions of the hireling girls in the North to that of slaves in the South, who could expect to be provided for when they were sick and old, they conclude that ‘hireling labor is more profitable for capital than slave labor’, evidenced by the number of fortunes accumulated by the North in comparison with the South.  But Lowell was seen, and doubtless considered himself to be, a philanthropist. The town, originally East Chelmsford, was renamed for him after his death in 1817.

 

Mill Girls at Work

Mill Girls at Work

 

Philanthropy or calculated exploitation? Did they co-exist?  Did the first mask the second? Were the youngest of the girls able to recognise the difference? The official policy was to employ young women between the ages of 15 and 25 but some were barely in their teens, confused, vulnerable children, unable to recognise abuse disguised as kindness. The story Rossner tells in Emmeline is very different from the one presented in the History Center online game. Emmeline Mosher’s life is not a series of choices but a tragic sequence of events over which she has no control.

Emmeline is the eldest of nine surviving children, three having died. She is thirteen years old. Her mother is thirty-one, and is still nursing the youngest. Too many children and not enough of anything else. In just a few words Judith Rossner shows the stark reality of poverty. When meals are served, the plates ‘always looked as though others had been there first and eaten their fill’, and when it came to washing-up, ‘there was no need to scrape them any more; there was never a crumb on any of them.’ Emmeline has one dress, no shawl and no bonnet. At the suggestion, insistence, of an aunt, she is to leave her village of Fayette to work at the mills in Lowell. Her aunt and uncle are childless and by Mosher standards prosperous. They might have helped out. The suggestion is not intentionally cruel, but it is not kind.

Emmeline has been to school. She can read, but she is both innocent and in important ways ignorant. Having enjoyed none of the joys of childhood (childhood is a costly luxury, not an entitlement)  she is un-prepared for adulthood. She is pretty, but doesn’t know it (the Moshers could no more afford a mirror, than a second dress for their Emmeline) nor can she begin to understand that prettiness could make a girl vulnerable. She has learned nothing from her mother, whose pregnancies went unmentioned, secrecy being a substitute for privacy, nor, being a shy child, has she picked up anything from the chatter of other girls. Veiled, last-minute warnings from her aunt on the journey from Fayette go over her head.

 

"The Merrimack River" by Alvin Fisher. 1833. 'They were passing over the bridge at Pawtucket Falls ...'

“The Merrimack River” by Alvin Fisher. 1833.
‘They were passing over the bridge at Pawtucket Falls …’

 

When, settled in Lowell, she is warned by the landlady-housemother-warden of her lodging house against the overseer of the weaving room in which she has been placed, Emmeline doesn’t understand. ‘You must keep away from Maguire. He’s dangerous … He’s hurt girls like you …’. Mrs Bass is as clear as she can be. Later, hearing from one of her room-mates that Mr Maguire ‘had taken advantage of Lucy Shorter’, she wants to know how but ‘feared being marked as an idiot, or a child, or both, if she asked.’ ‘He wants to be good,’ Hilda said, ‘and that is about the most that you can ask of a man.’ A few years older, and more knowing, Hilda, the best she can find by way of a friend, is no more explicit or helpful. ‘Don’t you think Lucy Shorter wanted to be good?’ asks Emmeline, but gets no answer. There is no one else to ask. She longs for friends, to be one of the group, ‘in the fashionable camaraderie’ of Mrs Bass’s ‘girls’, but shyness holds her back.

The mill work is wearisome, the threads starched and hard to knot, the noise at first unimaginable, ‘it filled her lungs and her eyes as well as her ears’, later more bearable ‘only in the sense that it had begun to feel as though it arose from within her head instead of attacking it from the outside’ – Rossner takes her reader into the grim heart of the mill, so that we can hear, and smell and breathe it, and feel the oppressive heat. When Maguire places his hand on her shoulder and calls her Emmy just as her father had, she is comforted by his kindness. Why wouldn’t she be? She is getting little from anyone else. Having found no one to replace the members of the family she has had to leave behind, she grasps at Mr Maguire’s invitation to join his, for tea on Christmas afternoon.

Now we would describe the behaviour as ‘grooming’, Emmeline as the victim, Maguire as the predator, his kindness as calculated. His seduction of Emmeline is both gentle and appalling, brilliantly and chillingly described. The child, who has never had a toy, is playing, for the first time, with a dolls’ house, belonging to Maguire’s daughters, an exact replica of the real house. She peers into a miniature room furnished with two tiny beds, a tiny table piled with tiny books, and a tiny chaise longue. When she is lifted on to the full-sized chaise, in the full-sized room next door, she is puzzled but not frightened. Later Emmeline doesn’t understand what has happened. She recalls discomfort, a little pain even, and knows it was wrong ‘because he had taken off some of her clothes’, but is ‘suffused with a powerful sense of well-being’, and comforted by being held, however inappropriately. Used all her life to sharing a bed with one or more siblings, the lonely child has missed the warmth of another body. She is happy to lie to protect him, so long as she can see him again. She is in love, and she has become used to lying, about small things.

A thread of secrets and lies runs through the novel. Her mother had denied her the knowledge that she needed on leaving home. When Emmeline finds herself pregnant, and dismissed from the mill (Persephone readers will know this from the catalogue, so no apology for the spoiler) money is found to conceal the fact from her family. Adoptive parents are found for her baby, but their identity is kept from her. A punishing silence surrounds the birth. She returns to Fayette, having lost her childhood, her baby, and, disastrously, the capacity to love another man. Maguire had taken that too.

 

"June" by Ellen Day Hale. National Museum of Women in the Arts. Washington DC. 'Was it possible that this easy fondness she felt for Simon was what some people called love?'

June by Ellen Day Hale. National Museum of Women in the Arts. Washington DC.
‘Was it possible that this easy fondness she felt for Simon was what some people called love?’

 

We know, he ‘had form’: Mrs Maguire was said to have acted ‘with great dignity over a girl who had been dismissed.’ Mrs Maguire’s dignity will have been of little use to the girl. She is moral but not kind, whereas he is immoral but capable of showing kindness. Rossner points out this same dichotomy in other people, and in other contexts: on the wider scale, the blurred line between philanthropy and exploitation, and amongst individuals. Emmeline discovers that the same people, can perform small acts of kindness, and petty acts of cruelty. Most painfully for her in the Baptist Church, whose pastors preach charity, but are unable to reach out a compassionate hand to a perceived sinner.

Emmeline had genuinely loved the man who abused her, eventually and with tragic consequences understanding and experiencing for herself the force of sexual desire that she had, as a child, without understanding, observed in him: ‘… the undertow he’d been struggling against. Only now was her soul’s craving for a mate matched by her body’s desire.’ But a calm and happy marriage is not one of the choices in Emmeline Mosher’s time-line.

The model for Emmeline Mosher was Emeline Bachelder Gurney, whose tragic life and death was recounted  in a television film broadcast by the American Public Broadcasting Service, some years after the publication of the novel, with the disturbing title Sins of our Mothers (it can be viewed here). ‘It happened in the long ago’, says Nettie Mitchell, a Fayette woman in her nineties, Rossner’s source. ‘They didn’t talk good about her’, says  another. ‘Don’t be Emmeline,’ warns a third. How wise! Don’t be a woman she might have added.

 

 

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