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by Judith Rossner
Persephone book no:

122 123 124

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781910263136

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) but 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 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.  

The Chicago Tribune continued: ‘It is interesting to compare Emmeline to Wuthering Heights, for both novels are starkly elemental dramas of the passions and their effect on human destiny. This is a novel of great power, masterfully told, and its last lines descend on the reader with a great cosmic chill. Emmeline does what all great novels should do. Transforming pain into purpose, it once again makes us aware of the inadequacy of our attitudes towards others and towards the world itself.’ Around the same time, Newsweek wrote: ‘The book uses a spare, reticent style which accentuates the C19th setting with the force of a ballad – fateful, darkly chorded and daringly imagined.' In Britain the Observer called Emmeline ‘compulsively readable’, the Guardian thought it was ‘told with harrowing clarity and a beautiful unforced sense of its period... a triumph of narration, simple and piercing’ and the Telegraph said it was ‘brilliant... stunningly well done... cannot be laid aside once started.’

For more on Emmeline, have a look at the Persephone Perspective.


The endpapers are taken from a fragment of an American nineteeth-century linen and wool plaid, possibly woven at Lowell. Emmeline might have worn this fabric as a shawl.

Picture Caption

 A label from one of the textile mills in Lowell, MA

Read What Readers Say

Heaven Ali (blogger)

‘Emmeline’ spans a period of about sixty years, though the majority of the story takes place in the 1840s and 50s. The reader’s anger for Emmeline builds gradually. Judith Rossner reveals the injustices and cruelties that existed for women and girls in a society that punished and judged those who had fallen foul of men’s selfish seductions. Emmeline is punished throughout her life for the crime of another: she hadn’t understood what danger she might be in, and later in life she makes a mistake that no one could possibly have foreseen. The unforgiving nature of the people close to her and the wider community is heart- breaking. It is an unforgettable story. ‘Emmeline’ is a wonderful novel – Rossner recreates the suffocating world of the cotton mills and the spiteful, gossipy boarding houses filled with adolescent girls brilliantly. It is both Emmeline the lonely, vulnerable girl and Emmeline the older woman, alone and ostracised that I will remember for a long time.

Lisa Bywell via Goodreads

Amazing. If I could give it more than five stars I would. It’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ all over again albeit in the 1850’s America (featuring lots of my favourite topics: industrial revolution, the civil war, pioneers). This book is shocking and tragic and sadly based on a true story.

Emma Louise via Goodreads

In three words: moving, shocking and unforgettable. 'Emmeline' is one of those rare books I couldn't put down and once finished I couldn't stop thinking about what I had just read… I will say no more and would advise not reading any extensive reviews or insight, just enjoy the unfolding of Emmeline's story but be prepared to be moved and shocked.

Categories: Adultery America Childhood History Sex Teenagers (books for) Victoriana Working Women

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