The screen is black. The sound of a pen nib scratching on paper, the sound amplified, echoing in the dark room. A soft light flickers, revealing ink tracking over paper. Follow the forming letters to read:
I’ve none to tell me to but thee
The area of light expands. A small maplewood desk, on which the paper lies. A hand holding the pen.
My hand, my pen, my words. My gift of love, ungiven.
Lay down the pen and cross the room. The light in the room grows. There’s a window on the far side. Outside it’s daylight.
Now the window frames the view. A road, a hedge, a strip of land planted with trees and shrubs. A path runs between the trees to the neighboring house, the Evergreens. A middle-aged man is coming down the path, his head a little bowed.
I know him well, I love him dearly. He is my brother.
Moving faster now, across the bedroom, out onto the landing. To the right is a bright window, to the left, a flight of stairs. Down the stairs, the hem of a white dress brushing the banisters, to come to a stop in the hall. The door to the parlor is ajar.
Pause before the almost closed door. Through the crack a thin slice of the room is visible within: a fire burning in the grate, a wing chair by the fire, the middle-aged man settling himself down with a sigh into the chair.
I know that sigh. I know that he’s unhappy. I know that he leaves his home and comes to my house because he finds no joy in his marriage. I am his refuge.
Open the door, and enter. He raises his bowed head. He has a heavy lined face, a sweep of thick hair above a high forehead, bushy whiskers. He smiles.
“Here I am again,” he says.
Sit down before him, not speaking, waiting for him to speak. After a little while he rises to his feet, paces up and down before the fire. He talks in fits and starts, as if to himself.
“I’ve been remembering Mattie, Mattie Gilbert, Sue’s sister. You liked her, I know. She was the quiet one. She was fond of me, I think. I wrote her a letter, after Sue and I became engaged, but she never answered. Now I wake in the night and think, What if I’d married Mattie?”
He paces in silence for a few moments. Then he comes to a stop and stands before the fire, his eyes cast down.
“I had such great hopes. And what have I left? I have nothing.”
Reach out a hand and touch his arm.
“I call it very unkind of you, brother.”
He smiles at that.
“Am I the unkind one?”
“You think only of yourself. Remember, you’re living for me too.”
“What am I to do?”
“There’s joy to be had in the world,” I say. “You’re to find us joy.”
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).
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Reading Group Guide
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