Oh, man! What a blisteringly angry and epic novel this is! Emmeline by Judith Rossner has sat on my to-be-read pile for a few months and I was finally spurred to bump it to the top this week by the news that the brand new Persephone Books for Spring are soon to be issued and I am therefore falling behind in my Persephone reading. And despite being a hefty 409 pages long, I rattled though Emmeline in a mere 48 hours - such was my inability to put her down.
Originally published in 1980, Rossner's sixth novel is a furious tour de force set in 1800s America, following the life of our shero Emmeline Mosher. Born as the eldest daughter in a large, working-class family in the small pioneering town of Fayette (a real town located in Maine), aged just 13 Emmeline is sent nearly 200 miles away to work in a cotton mill in Lowell, Massachusetts - because her destitute family is depending on her paltry income ($1 a week) for their survival.
Just a child, our 13-year-old protagonist has no knowledge of the world. She is a naive and young girl with nobody looking out for her welfare, so she clings to her Bible and her code of good behaviour to protect her honour. Desperately homesick and feeling out of place in Lowell, being several years younger than most of the other mill girls, when her employer Mr Maguire shows kindness, of course young Emmeline responds. The child is desperate for someone to pay her attention... which the loathsome Maguire certainly does after getting her drunk and dazzling her with the luxuries of his home.
It's hardly a spoiler to say that 13-year-old Emmeline becomes pregnant, despite having no concept of how babies are conceived nor of what the man 27 years her senior is doing to her (save only for the horrifying comment that because it makes him happy, she doesn't mind him doing it: "She did not understand precisely what had happened between them, though she knew that it was wrong because he had taken off some of her clothes. She had been uncomfortable - even briefly in pain - but none of that had mattered when measured against his holding her, his kissing her, his speaking to her affectionately ... The guilty feelings wouldn't matter, if he seemed happy." I mean - jeez! If that doesn't make you seethe with rage, I don't know what will). Of course, to a reader in 2018, it is clear that Maguire is not only a rapist but a paedophile. Worse, is the clear implication in Emmeline that this is far from the first time he has done this.
And of course, it is not Maguire's life that is ruined. Sure, his unseen wife seems to sound a bit irked about the whole thing (and who could blame her?), but once Emmeline's pregnancy is revealed to him he pays her to leave and gets back to his life as before. No doubt looking for the next homesick, innocent child to seduce.
Being an unmarried teenage mother is not even the worst thing that happens to Emmeline, but it is explicit that Maguire's abuse of her is the catalyst for the catalogue of sadness and injustice that fills her long and lonely life. I won't reveal the plot in the second half of Emmeline, but I will say it filled me with an overwhelming anger and sadness. None of what happens to our shero is her own fault. We are told again and again that she is a good, God-fearing young woman, whose only crime is her naivety. But if nobody is willing to educate young girls, that is hardly the fault of the girls themselves: how can they know what it is they do not know? This lack of education certainly doesn't stop her family, friends or neighbours from holding Emmeline responsible. But how can you be responsible for what you do not know you have done?
In the early chapters of Emmeline, I was reminded of the young Jane Eyre and her ousting from the cruel Reed family to life at the barbaric Lowood Institution. The documentary-style depiction of Emmeline's day-to-day life in the Lowell mill and boarding house is reminiscent of Jane's loneliness and drudgery at the school. But when Emmeline starts to fall under Maguire's spell, the tone becomes more reminiscent of work from Tracy Chevalier, who has mastered the art of writing compulsively readable contemporary historical fiction - and that's certainly what Rossner has written here. Emmeline is impossible to put down. The story fires ahead at a fast pace and the pain and perplexity Emmeline feels at the way she is mistreated and cast aside is fierce. The reader demands to know what happens next and is incapable of putting the book down!
What's even more staggering is that Rossner based her novel on the real life story of Emeline Bachelder Gurney and that is possibly the most anger-inducing element of this whole episode. That this was actually allowed to happen to a young child. Of course, there is more than just the patriarchal society to blame for Emmeline/Emeline's tragedy - we could also blame her family and her religion, who both compelled her to think kindly of others and to act to please others. The afterword by Lucy Ellmann in this new Persephone edition offers a thought-provoking and furious way to consider what you have just read.