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Emmeline by Judith Rossner

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

2017, Persephone Books

1980, Simon and Schuster, Jonathan Cape

Sue gave me this book after reading it herself; being a kindred reader soul, she kindly wrote up this summary for kelliebooks:

This historical novel tells the story of Emmeline, a poor working girl in the 1840’s. The eldest of nine children, thirteen-year-old Emmeline travels with her aunt from Maine to the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts to start a job in the mills and send money back to her family.

Emmeline boards with Mrs Bass, a motherly figure whose strict rules are meant to protect the young girls in her care. They are also meant to protect Mrs Bass’ reputation and livelihood. If societal norms are broken, she will be blamed and her ability to earn will be threatened.

At the mill, some jobs are better than others. If the man in charge believes Emmeline is strong and capable, she will get better work and better pay. The fact that she is pleasant - to look at and interact with - makes a difference. She is noticed by Mr McGuire, the manager of the weaving room, whose apparent kindness attracts but ultimately deceives her.

Here the novel comes to feel more and more claustrophobic. The loneliness Emmeline feels being far from home, her hopes for love, understanding and compassion, the options that narrow - are difficult for us to bear. We wish only good for this girl, for some happy ending where the adults, or Emmeline herself, make things right. Yet we don’t see how this can happen.

Emmeline's sad story is not ‘made up’. The documentary Sins of our Mothers includes testimonies about the real Emeline (Bachelder Gurney), apparently ostracised from her community for immorality after returning from the mill.


A Further Look (spoilers)

While researching this story, I came across a post by Juli Kearns questioning the historical accuracy of claims made in the documentary, (and fictionalised in Rossner's book), namely that Emeline had unknowingly married her own son and for that reason was totally ostracised by her community in Fayette, Maine.

Juli graciously took the time to answer my questions.

kb: What made you want to research Emeline's story?

J: I was struck by its resemblance to the Greek Oedipal myth; a woman who unknowingly marries her son. I also have an ancestor who worked at the Lowell Mills so I was curious to learn more.

kb: Why do you think the story came to be seen as true if it isn't?

J: It's as if the Greek myth, refashioned for a puritanical New England dealing with industrialization, and class and sex issues, somehow became attached to the person of Emeline, perhaps standing as a warning to young women for why they shouldn't go to work in the mill, where they might take on "loose morals" or be taken advantage of, and have their life ruined.

"She has worked in a Factory," is almost enough to damn to infamy the most worthy and virtuous girl," is a quote from "The Laboring Classes", an article written in 1840 attacking girls and women working in the mills. While it argues against the drudgery of mill life, the tone of the article suggests the author's real problem had more to do with morality, and the threat against traditional married life represented by the independence of wage-earning women. (To note: Mill women created the first union for working women in America.)

The primary focus of the documentary Sins of Our Mothers is the community of Fayette, Maine discussing past injustice in order to cleanse itself of the suffering caused by the treatment of Emeline. The documentary was released in 1989, a time far removed from the mid 1800s when the events supposedly took place. An unmarried woman having a child was no longer shameful. There were probably other events that had taken place within the community, as in many communities, that a story such as this indirectly addressed. Emeline may very well have been ostracized--but why? She had been married and yet she was separated or divorced, and she eventually married again. How did the community feel about that?

kb: Did you find evidence suggesting the story was not true?

J: Records show that Emeline was married twice, each time to men older than herself, and had a young son by the first marriage who grew up in the community and eventually went to Lowell, where they had family that ran a boarding house for mill women. That is enough to suggest the story is not true, as the story avers that she was married only once, unwittingly to her own son. (More details here.)

It seems like Emeline's life was reimagined into this myth. Did Emeline even leave her community for Lowell when young? We've no proof of that but if she did then she faced being ostracised just for having gone to work there. Whatever the true story was, I reason it was all a sad business up there in Fayette.

kb: Thank you, Juli.


Judith Rossner published other books related to the plight of women in a male-dominated society, notably Looking for Mr Goodbar (1975) about a woman stalked and killed in New York City. Quite a different time and place than her Emmeline.

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