- N.J. Mastro
Margaret Maher: Keeper of Poems
Emily’s House by Amy Belding Brown is a novel based on the true story of the relationship between the Emily Dickinson and Margaret (Maggie) Maher, housemaid and servant to Emily Dickinson and her family during the last half of the nineteenth century. In it readers enjoy a firsthand account of life with Emily Dickinson, known at the time as the Belle of Amherst, Massachusetts.
A story of Emily Dickinson alone would be interesting. But Maggie Maher proves to be no small figure in literary history when she becomes the unlikely keeper of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
While Maggie cooks and cleans for the Dickinson family, serves their meals, and performs myriad chores, she and the enigmatic Emily become friends. After years of living under the same roof, the two establish a special bond of trust and mutual admiration. Eventually they begin to talk about poetry.
As Emily’s confidante, no one but Maggie knows just how many poems Emily is writing. The very private author who never leaves the house keeps her work secret. Seeing how much Maggie appreciates her penchant for capturing life using a sparsity of words (though Emily can't understand why anyone would like them), Emily gives the poems to Maggie for safekeeping until Emily dies. Upon her death, however, Emily’s instructions to Maggie are clear: she is to tell no one about the poems. She is to burn every last one Emily has given her.
When Emily passes away, knowing what treasures Emily’s poems are, Maggie has the unenviable responsibility of having to decide whether to honor Emily’s wish or save something which she knows to possess profound beauty. Will Maggie burn them? Or will she reveal them to Emily's family?
So who was Margaret Maher?
Margaret (Maggie) Maher was born in Tipperary, Ireland in 1841. Maggie and her family emigrated to America circa 1850 during the devastating Irish potato famine. They disembarked in New York, then later relocated to Amherst, where they lived in a multi-generational compound known as Kelly Square.
Pictured here on the left, a pragmatic-looking Maggie poses for the camera, presumably with her father and sister, Mary.
Source: Emily Dickinson Museum, https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/roomitem/margaret-maher/
Maggie was fortunate to be in contact with her siblings, especially her sister, Mary, and Mary’s family. Two of Maggie’s brothers traveled to California to make their fortune in gold. Maggie was to have gone with them, but when the time arrived to leave she became desperately ill and was left behind.
In 1869 Maggie went to work for the Dickinson’s at the insistence of Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson, a Massachusetts politician. While working for the family, Maggie was able to easily traverse to Kelly Square, which was within a quarter mile of the Dickinson Homestead.
Edward appears by all accounts to have been stoic and stern. Emily, one of his three children, kept to herself and spent an inordinate amount of time alone.
The Dickinson Homestead
That Maggie won Emily’s confidence in the seventeen years they knew each other is telling. At an early age Emily was known as a recluse. And servants were not always respected by their employers. But Maggie and Emily seemed to have something between them one can only describe as a special trust. This might have been due to Maggie’s good nature.
There isn’t much in the way of historical research about Maggie. In Emily’s letters, she described her as “courageous” and “warm and wild and mighty.” In another description in her letters, Emily describes her as "good and noisy, the North Wind of the Family.”
Beyond that, without more information about Maggie, Amy Belding Brown was free to imagine Maggie in fiction and chose to write Emily’s House in first-person point of view with Maggie as the narrator. Oh, how I love this choice. The novel’s plot itself is compelling, but the way Brown presents Maggie’s as a no-nonsense Irish immigrant is delightful. You’ll be reading just to know Maggie, to hear the cadence of her voice, to share with her those few moments where she goes soft beneath her hard-shell exterior.
Maggie is a keen observer. She displays steely resolve, brunt common sense, and a wicked wit. In the novel, Maggie has her own love story with one Patrick Quinn. Brown imagined Quinn based on what she called a cryptic comment in one of Emily’s letters: “courageous Maggie is not yet caught in the snares of Patrick.” The excerpt that follows demonstrates Brown’s magic with words in carving Maggie’s voice:
“When he walked me back to the Homestead that night, there was a ribbon of ice on the edge of the road and a ribbon of stars above our heads. I shivered when I opened the Homestead gate and Patrick said, ‘You’re cold!’ and wrapped his arms around me so I felt swaddled tight as a babe. My bones went soft as pudding. I didn’t resist or push him away when his mouth came down on mine. God’s truth, I welcomed his kisses, sinful as I knew they were. For a blaze was running through me, fast as fire climbs a curtain blown too close to a lamp. If it had been the fire of Hell itself consuming me, I wouldn’t have noticed. I was that far gone.”
In the end, what fascinates me most about Maggie Maher’s story, real and imagined, is the monumental impact she had in the world of arts and letters. She perhaps more than anyone ensured Emily Dickinson lives forever.
It is hard to imagine a world without Emily Dickinson. In all, she left behind over two thousand poems, Maggie credited with saving the vast majority of them. Maggie also saved this now famous daguerreotype of Emily after Emily's sister discarded it.
by Emily Dickinson
There is no frigate like a book To take us lands away, Nor any coursers like a page Of prancing poetry. This traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of toll; How frugal is the chariot That bears a human soul!
Margaret (Maggie) Maher died on May 3, 1924, and is buried in Northampton, Massachusetts.
I highly recommend Emily’s House. Amy Belding Brown’s prose has its own sense of poetry; do not miss the opportunity to savor it. You’ll also glean a good bit of history while you’re at it.
Thanks for reading I’m glad you’re here.
N.J. (Nancy) Mastro
Footnotes:  Letters of Emily Dickinson, Volumes 1-2. Roberts Brothers. 1894. p. 298. Retrieved March 12, 2020 – via Google Books. Retrieved for this post from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Maher#cite_note-14  Dickson, Emily (1958). Letters, Volume 3. Belknap Press. p. 690. Retrieved March 12, 2020 – via Google Books. Retrieved for this post from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Maher#cite_note-15  Emily’s House (2021), p. 360. Berkley. Paperback.
 Ibid. p. 169.