A Novel


From an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, “a wonderfully smooth, sinuous, enigmatic, and sexy tale of two love affairs” (Providence Journal) set in Amherst and illuminated by the presence of Emily Dickinson.

Alice Dickinson, a young advertising executive in London, decides to take time off work to research her idea for a screenplay: the true story of the scandalous, adulterous love affair between Emily Dickinson’s married brother, Austin, and a young, Amherst College faculty wife named Mabel Loomis Todd. Austin, twenty-four years Mabel’s senior and the college treasurer, lived next door to his reclusive sister, who allowed her home to be used for Austin and Mabel’s trysts.

Alice travels to Amherst, staying in the house of Nick Crocker, a married English academic in his fifties. As Alice researches Austin and Mabel’s story and Emily’s role in their affair, she embarks on her own affair with Nick, an affair that, of course, they both know echoes the one that she’s writing about.

Using the poems of Emily Dickinson throughout, historically accurate and meticulously recreated from their voluminous letters and diaries, “William Nicholson deftly weaves Mabel’s story with Alice’s, shedding light on the timeless longing, lust, and loneliness of love” (People). Amherst is a provocative and remarkable novel: “The poetry and history go down easy, the lovers fall hard, and the tragic, treacherous terrain of romantic entanglement is well explored” (Elle).
  • Simon & Schuster | 
  • 304 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781476740416 | 
  • February 2016
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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Amherst includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q & A with author William Nicolson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Amherst tells of two love stories—one present, one past—both presided over by Emily Dickinson. Alice Dickinson travels from London to Amherst, Massachusetts, to research her idea for a screenplay—the little known true story of a love affair between Emily Dickinson’s married brother, Austin, and a much younger Amherst College faculty wife, Mabel Loomis Todd. As Alice delves into Austin and Mabel’s affair—and Emily Dickinson’s role in it—she embarks on an affair of her own with Nick Crocker, an older married Amherst academic and Emily Dickinson enthusiast.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The author opens the first chapter as if it is a screenplay, and then varies the narrative voice throughout. Why do you think he chose to write the novel this way?

2. Why does the story of Austin and Mabel’s affair mean more to Alice “than the sum of its parts?”

3. Both Alice and Mabel have love affairs with olde see more

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About the Author

William Nicholson
Photograph by Jerry Bauer

William Nicholson

William Nicholson is a screenwriter, playwright, television writer, and novelist. In addition to his Academy Award–nominated screenplays for Shadowlands and Gladiator, he is the author of Motherland; several young adult and fantasy novels; and a sequence of contemporary adult novels set in England. He lives in Sussex, England.