Emily Henrietta Hickey was born on April 12, 1845, near Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland at Macmine Castle, the ancestral home of her mother, a former Miss Newton-King. Her father, Canon John Hickey, was the Church of Ireland parson in Goresbridge, County Kilkenny, and later in Clonmulsh, County Carlow. Emily gained her first knowledge of Catholicism from the household staff.
Emily was sent to boarding school at thirteen. Here Madame Stuart, her teacher and lifelong friend, opened new literary vistas, introducing her to Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Tennyson. Shakespeare was reserved for later study since Canon Hickey considered the Bard of Avon inappropriate for young girls. Hickey showed an early penchant for poetry. Her first poem, “Told in the Firelight,” appeared in Cornhill Magazine before her twenty-first birthday. An invitation by Alexander MacMillan, publisher of Macmillan’s Magazine, to come to England brought her into contact with many of the period’s literary giants, especially Robert Browning. While honing her artistic skills in London, Hickey found work, ranging from tutoring to companioning. At one point, she was employed by the Charity Organisation Society, composed of women desirous of improving the lot of working women through access to higher education. She also earned a first class honors certificate from Cambridge University. Part-time teaching led to an appointment as lecturer of English language and literature at Frances Mary Buss’s North London Collegiate School for Girls, a post she held for eighteen years. During this time, she also published short stories, essays, and several volumes of poetry. In 1881, Hickey and Frederick Furnivall founded the Browning Society and she became its honorary secretary. Her friendship with Browning resulted in several biographical and critical articles as well as an annotated edition of his Strafford.