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Emmeline

by Judith Rossner

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 A label from one of the textile mills in Lowell, MA

AFTERWORD BY LUCY ELLMANN
416pp
ISBN 9781910263136

Emmeline, Persephone Book No. 123, is a historical novel, written in 1980, which is set  in America in the 1840s. It is about thirteen-year-old Emmeline Mosher, who leaves her  home in Fayette in Maine and goes to work in the mills at Lowell in Massachusetts. This  was common practice: the girls (around eight thousand of them in Lowell alone) were housed in large boarding houses, worked in the mills all day, and the money they earned was sent back to their, mostly farming, families. Even though the work was hard, many of the girls were pleased to have the freedom to work. However, Emmeline goes to Lowell reluctantly and is disorientated and lonely. But she is also beautiful – and a double tragedy ensues. 

The  author of Emmeline was the New York writer Judith Rossner (1935–2005). Her most famous novel was Waiting for Mr Goodbar (four million copies sold), her best was Emmeline, although, shamefully, it has not been in print since it was first published. It is, as Lucy Ellmann writes in her Afterword ‘a richly-formed examination of womanhood, conducted with almost unbroken tenderness. It  moves from childhood sexual abuse to adult incest without ever getting puerile.’ It is a novel which, as the original Chicago Tribune reviewer wrote, ‘raises disturbing questions about all our received moral truths.’

A page-turner from beginning to end, Emmeline is unusual because it is a fascinating, in some ways almost documentary, book about the life of the mill girls in Lowell. And because most of them were so young, the novel raises many questions to do with childhood, the way society treats children, and at what age they become adults, and all the things that were rarely discussed. Emmeline knows nothing about real life, and when she is seduced knows nothing about what is happening to her. Yet society then punishes her in the traditional but appalling way – by taking her baby away from her. The fact that this tragedy is then compounded by another – the Oedipus story from Jocasta’s point of view – is what makes this book unforgettably powerful.  

The real disaster was that no one ever told Emmeline the truth about life or the facts of life or accepted that she was still a child who should have been treated as such. A few pages before the end of the book the local preacher tells Emmeline: ‘You have committed two grave sins.’ She responds: ‘I didn’t know! The first time I was a child! I didn’t know it was possible for me to sin! I thought only evil people sinned. I was never even on guard!’ And she adds: ‘I had seen the word adultery in my Bible. When I asked my mother what it meant, she told me I would know when I needed to know.’ It is the age-old shocker (as Lucy Ellmann makes clear): that young women were deliberately kept in ignorance. After all, knowledge is power, and the patriarchy kept itself in power by ensuring that women had no knowledge. It was only in the past few decades that western society started to become more honest.

The Chicago Tribune continued: ‘It is interesting to compare Emmeline to Wuthering Heights, for both novels are starkly elemental dramas of the passions and their effect on human destiny. This is a novel of great power, masterfully told, and its last lines descend on the reader with a great cosmic chill. Emmeline does what all great novels should do. Transforming pain into purpose, it once again makes us aware of the inadequacy of our attitudes towards others and towards the world itself.’ Newsweek wrote: ‘The book uses a spare, reticent style which accentuates the C19th setting with the force of a ballad – fateful, darkly chorded and daringly imagined. Judith Rossner makes no overt feminist issue of Emmeline’s hard fate and her heroine never congeals into Pioneer Woman. The subject is loneliness and she portrays it intimately and exactly. She also creates a feat of historical recreation.’ In Britain the Observer called Emmeline ‘compulsively readable’, the Guardian thought it was ‘told with harrowing clarity and a beautiful unforced sense of its period...a triumph of narration, simple and piercing’ and the Telegraph said it was ‘brilliant...stunningly well done...cannot be laid aside once started.’

Endpapers are taken from a fragment of an American nineteeth-century linen and wool plaid, possibly woven at Lowell. Emmeline might have worn this fabric as a shawl.

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Categories: Working Women    Childhood    History    Sex    Victoriana    America    Teenagers (books for)    Adultery   
 

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