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. Introduction Amherst
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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 older men. What other traits do the women have in common? In what ways do they differ? What about Nick and Austin?
4. How is Alice and Nick’s relationship similar to that of Mabel and Austin? How do the relationships differ?
5. Were you surprised by Emily’s reaction when she learned of her brother’s interest in Mabel? Why do you think she responds this way?
6. Jack tells Alice, “You can have passion or you can have gratification, but you can’t have both.” Does this ring true throughout the book? Are there any exceptions?
7. Do you think Mabel loves her husband, David? If so, how does Mabel’s love for him differ from her love for Austin?
8. What role does David play in Mabel and Austin’s relationship? What do you think of his reaction to their affair?
9. Austin asks Vinnie to burn his letters if something happens to him, and, though Mabel begs, he is hesitant to talk with his wife about his relationship with Mabel. What does this indicate about his feelings regarding their affair? Do his feelings differ from Mabel’s?
10. Why do Austin’s feelings about his affair change after his son’s death? Do you think Austin and Mabel’s story would have been different if the boy hadn’t died?
11. When Peggy asks Alice how Austin and Mabel could have remained “hot for each other for so long,” Alice responds, “It’s because they weren’t ever able to settle into any kind of regular routine. Their love was always forbidden, always secret, always stolen. That’s where the heat came from.” Do you agree?
12. Describe and discuss Emily’s and Mabel’s feelings about each other. Do you think the relationship would have been different if they had met face-to-face?
13. Do you think Alice’s feelings about Emily and Mabel change throughout Amherst
14. Jack states that, “All stories are defined by their endings.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
15. Why do you think the author opens and closes the book with the poem by Emily Dickinson that begins “This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me”? Enhance Your Book Club
is bound together with lines of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Host a Dickinson poetry reading with the members of your book club.
2. Visit the Emily Dickinson Museum’s website, emilydickinsonmuseum.org. Have each member of the book club report on something interesting or surprising they learned from the site.
3. Learn more about Mabel Loomis Todd by searching for her on the Yale University Library online database, http://drs.library.yale.edu/.
4. To read more about Mabel’s efforts to bring Emily Dickinson’s poetry to light, read Ancestors’ Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson
by Mabel’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, and Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd
by Polly Longsworth.
5. Did any poets live in your area? Is so, discuss the life and poetry of your local poet at your next book club meeting. A Conversation with William Nicholson Like Alice, you live in the UK. What inspired you to set a novel in the United States?
My love for the poems of Emily Dickinson. This is my way of getting closer to her. How did you decide to write about Mabel Loomis Todd and Austin Dickinson?
I pondered various ways of writing about the poet, and then came upon the extraordinary story of her brother’s affair. I saw that this was a way to reflect both on Emily herself, her poems, and the broader themes that interest me. Alice travels to Amherst for her research. How did you go about researching the novel?
I did exactly what Alice does, though I didn’t have an affair with an older professor. I visited Amherst, I went to the Emily Dickinson Museum, I went to the Sterling Memorial Library in Yale where the Austin–Mabel diaries and letters are kept. You state that “You can have passion or you can have gratification, but you can’t have both.” Do you believe that your characters live by this?
My characters try to buck this wisdom, but they don’t succeed. My suggestion is that passion is built on anxiety, and of course gratification is the end of anxiety. So much of Amherst focuses on the importance of storytelling and narrative. Narrative isn’t a term often applied to poetry. Do you find a kind of narrative in Emily’s poems?
Sometimes; not mostly. The narrative I’m applying to Emily isn’t in her poems, it’s in her life—or rather, in the way we perceive her life. All narrative is an ordering of reality, and I think with those we admire we’re particularly prone to forcing their lives into the narrative that appeals to us. Why did you choose to structure the book using parallel love stories?
It enables me to broaden the exploration beyond the realm of historical curiosity, and I hope causes the reader to ask questions about their own assumptions in this area. Amherst is set against the background of both the town and college. How, if at all, does the college influence the events of the novel?
The college had a powerful influence on the historical characters, and therefore on the story I tell set in the nineteenth century. In my present-day story I have chosen to place one character in the college, or recently in its world. I wouldn’t say that Amherst College as it is today plays a role in the novel. The reader never sees Emily, but her presence is deeply felt. Why did you choose to keep a her hidden?
It’s a kind of restraint on my part, caused by a combination of great respect and an awareness of how little we know about Emily. For all her poems and letters, she remained in her lifetime, and still remains, an enigma. I have no theory to advance on why she became a recluse—actually, that’s not true, I do suggest it was out of a kind of pride—but I suggest it very gently. I wished rather for the focus to fall on the poems. Mabel becomes an advocate for Emily Dickinson’s work after her death. Why do you think Mabel chose to fill this role?
The poems undoubtedly spoke to Mabel in her unhappiness, as they have spoken to so many since. But also Mabel needed a role, and the poems surfaced at the right moment in her life. Of course you’ll notice that in the novel I float the suggestion that Emily herself planned and willed this role for Mabel, in the interests of her own posterity. Make of that what you will.