Emmeline (book)

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First edition (publ. Simon & Schuster)

Emmeline is a book by Judith Rossner. Published in 1980, Emmeline details the local legend of a woman who becomes ostracized by everyone in her hometown in Maine after a shocking long-held secret becomes public. The story is a fictionalized account of the life of Emeline Bachelder Gurney. Both anecdotal and documented evidence exist proving that Gurney and her story were real.[1] An operatic version by Tobias Picker (libretto by J. D. McClatchy) premiered in 1996 and has enjoyed considerable success. It has been recorded and televised.


In 1839, thirteen-year-old Emmeline Mosher lives on a farm with her family in Fayette, Maine. Times are hard so when Emmeline's paternal aunt suggests that she go to Lowell, Massachusetts to support her family by working in the factories Emmeline dutifully leaves home.

When she arrives in Lowell, she is sent to live in a boarding house for young female mill-workers. Emmeline is a good worker. However, she is unable to befriend any of the other girls who look down on her due to her country ways and her relative youth. Lonely, Emmeline is easily seduced by the Irish-born husband of the factory owner's daughter. She becomes pregnant, although she is not immediately aware of her condition. The embarrassed boarding house landlady contacts Emmeline's aunt who lives in the neighboring town of Lynn, Massachusetts and evicts her.

Fearful of Emmeline's parents' reaction, Emmeline's aunt and uncle help her conceal the pregnancy. They send letters and Emmeline's savings (which they pass off as her regular salary) to her parents. They also arrange to have Emmeline's unborn child adopted. Emmeline gives birth to what she believes to be a girl; her aunt refuses to tell her what the sex of the child is or any other information about the baby in the belief that it will be easier for Emmeline to give the baby up that way. Emmeline returns home shortly thereafter.

Part two of the book picks up more than twenty years in the future. Despite numerous proposals, a middle-aged Emmeline has never married or moved out of her family's home, a fact that chagrins her father. She does have a tight circle of friends, though, socializing primarily with two sisters of a widower who proposed marriage to her. One day, Matthew Gurney, an itinerant worker, rolls into town. He and Emmeline share a strong immediate attraction. Matthew proposes to her and Emmeline eagerly accepts. They marry with Emmeline wearing her sister-in-law's wedding dress and move into a house that they build themselves.

Emmeline's aunt comes to visit after the wedding. She instantly recognizes Matthew and forces him to admit that he is twenty-one years old, not twenty-six as he originally claimed. At that moment, Emmeline realizes that she gave birth to a boy, not a girl, and that she has married her son. Her aunt tells her father who immediately disowns her. Word quickly spreads throughout town. Matthew deserts Emmeline, who is soon excommunicated by the preacher at her church. Emmeline spends the rest of her long life on the fringes of the town, ignored by all, and tries to subsist on what she can grow herself. A neglected old woman, she dies during a particularly harsh winter.


  1. ^ Sins Of Our Mothers, American Experience documentary, 1989, reviewed in the New York Times, 1989-01-17. Webpage found 2010-03-12.