Emmeline 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.
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