In Emmeline , Judith Rossner has taken on a plot of high improbable melodrama and come so close to making it believable that the part we cannot swallow scarcely bothers our enjoyment.
In a note, Rossner tells us that the story of Emmeline was told by a woman in Fayette, Maine, old enough to have been a child when Emmeline was an old woman.
The novel begins straightforwardly, "This is the story of Emmeline Mosher, who, before her fourteenth birthday, was sent from her home on a farm in Maine to support her family working in a cotton mill in Massachusetts. The year was 1839."
Of course, claiming an origin in fact does not excuse plots that creak or circumstances that collide with unlikely bangs. The weakest answer any novelist can ever give is that something was that way and therefore is so transcribed. Fictional truth is more shapely and more persuasive than reality. We know people more clearly, understand motives and see how events ramify, as we seldom can in real life. Only because Emmeline is well drawn and because we identify with her determination to survive difficulties and save her family, we are able to accept a story that is archaic and sensational.
Emmeline is a fully realized character in her naivete, her courage, her failing piety, her stubborn will, her devotion to her mother and her desperate loneliness. Sent to the mill in Lowell to save her familty from hunger she is the sacrifice the family makes to survive.
Lowell is vividly created. Rossner's historical research is obviously well done but entirely incorporated in the emotions and responses and adventures of her people. The mill girls themselves are individualized against the thunderous roar of the machinery, the bleak cold of long winter, the black-and-white-and-gray canal-cut landscape of Lowell. Rossner is not sentimental about the past. Her 19th-century New England is as hard a place for women to thrive as her 20th-century New York, as in Looking for Mr. Goodbar . t
Emmeline falls in love with her foreman, a married Irish immigrant whose kindness is the only warmth in a life of dawn-to-dark, six-days-a-week-labor. It is a measure of how well Emmeline has been created that we believe she makes love without realizing what she is doing. Emmeline has been told nothing about sex and does not worry about being pregnant even after she is. I said to myself that Emmeline had grown up sleeping many people to a room and in a bed, on a farm where animal matting is not arcane knowledge. Nonetheless Rossner managed to convince me that not only was the inhibition on discussing sex powerful among women, but that Emmeline was the sort of person who could act without acknowledging to herself what she is doing.
Discovered, Emmeline gives birth in her aunt's house, where the baby is taken from her immediately. She never sees her baby, whom she has dreamed of as a daughter, and almost dies in childbed fever. Her lover sends a sum of money but never sees her again.
Emmeline settles down to being the spinster daughter who takes care of her parents, whom she cannot confide in; no one in the family wishes to know the price of their economic survival. When she is in her middle thirties, her younger brothers have all moved west, and her father begins to pressure her to marry a local widower so he can have help on the farm. But Emmeline falls in love with the head of a road gang who is boarding with them. Matthew is years younger than Emmeline, although he lies to lessen the age gap. Theirs is a happy and passionate marriage until, as Emmeline's mother is dying, the aunt comes to visit and knocks down the house of cards.
This last sequence is a weak point in the novel, for the aunt plays fate a little too heavily. If I can go along with the denouement, it's because Rossner makes Emmeline so inward, so stubborn, so passionate with no outlets, that I can almost believe she can will back to her the child she gave up under protest and has always longed for.
EMMELINE is a dark book, powerful, energetic and suspensful. If Rossner believes that sexual passioin destroys women, as she often seems to in her fictions, nonetheless she does not present an Emmeline destroyed. Given the confines of her class and the strict and narrow feminine roles of her time and place, Emmeline is strong. Even incest does not destroy her. When she tries suicide, she saves herself. It is incorrect to say that she experiences remorse but rather that she recognizes her complicity in the events of her life. She is one of the most deeply solitary female characters in recent fiction.
Emmeline's love for the father and for the son are equally convincing, although in no way is the same characters repeated. It is one of the minor ironies of the book that if the aunt had kept her mouth shut, Mathew and Emmeline would have lived on quite happy with each other.
Mother-son incest is the rarest type in our society, where every person who works professionally with families has to deal with father-daughter incest, and where the older man-younger woman couple is considered normal and the older woman-younger man couple is viewed with suspicion. In spite of the rarity of mother-son incest or because of the depth of the taboo, it has a curious hold on the contemporary imagination, including at least two movies of recent years. Rossner deals with the myth by embedding it in vivid circumstantial reality, and by creating a character strong enough to lend integrity to the improbable.