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Table of Contents
About The Book
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).
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.”
Reading Group Guide
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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 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
1. Amherst 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.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 16, 2016)
- Length: 304 pages
- ISBN13: 9781476740416
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Raves and Reviews
“Alice has come to Emily Dickinson’s hometown to research a screenplay about the long affair between the poet’s brother Austin and Mabel Todd, a professor’s wife. Soon life tips its hat to art: Alice herself enters into an affair. Nicholson deftly weaves Mabel’s story with Alice’s, shedding light on the timeless longing, lust and loneliness of love.”
“Accomplished novelist and screenwriter Nicholson spins a tale of two college-two love triangles…The poetry and history go down easy, the lovers fall hard, and the tragic, treacherous terrain of romantic entanglement is well explored in what more than one reader saw as ripe material for a screenplay.”
“[A] wonderfully smooth, sinuous, enigmatic and sexy tale of two love affairs… Nicholson’s dialogue is beautifully oblique and emotionally wrought. We’re drawn into both worlds, both romances. And of Emily and Mabel and Alice and Sue: ‘For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen — /Judge tenderly — of Me.’”
– Providence Journal
“Dickinson’s spirit fuels the drama, which switches between two parallel stories that illuminate the power as well as the often crippling delusion of romantic love…. direct, provocative, even sexy at times.”
– Boston Globe
"Nicholson not only gives us an entertaining and often touching novel but also does a larger service. He reminds us of how well Dickinson knew the human heart, including its loneliness, and that humans, of any century, yearn for deep connection, often against the odds."
– Buffalo News
“A compelling reflection on sex and marriage in the 19th century, [Amherst] is an enjoyable concoction of first-hand accounts and modern imagination.”
– Financial Times
“Nicholson’s prose is sharp while not giving too much away…The novel is a perfect accompaniment for a long winter’s evening…readers who enjoy their historical fiction mixed modern mystery will enjoy Amherst.”
– Historical Novels Review
"Weaving voices of the past and present, Nicholson creates an engaging, many-faceted novel that deftly explores the timeless torments of love and loneliness."
– Booklist, starred review
“Nicholson is an accomplished novelist (Motherland) and Oscar-nominated screenwriter in whose hands this meticulously researched and thought-provoking exploration of the nature of passionate love soars. Told in alternating chapters between the past and the present and using the poems of Emily Dickinson throughout, this work...is accessible to all and should be welcomed by book groups. Highly recommended.”
– Library Journal
"Nicholson's parallel love stories hold classic appeal, while the historical aspects of the tale provide interest for those seeking 'the real story' of one of America's most revered poets."
– Kirkus Reviews
“A cinema-ready exploration of love and lust in New England past and present.”
– Publishers Weekly
"Lyric and rich, this beautiful novel presents two love affairs more than a century apart, expertly stitched together by the unseen hand of Emily Dickinson. Through a small, intimate lens the novel explores blockbuster themes of love, honesty and fidelity. It is a rare and lovely book."
– Priya Parmar, author of Vanessa and Her Sisters and Exit the Actress
“William Nicholson’s masterly novel, zig-zagging between two contrasting eras, weaves love, sex and poetry together so seamlessly that you can hardly see the joins.”
– Mail on Sunday, "The Best New Fiction"
“A compelling reflection on sex and marriage in the 19th century."
– Financial Times
“William Nicholson’s multi-stranded love stories are grounded in ultra-credible characterisation.”
– Allan Massie, The Scotsman
“Plenty of writers like to counterpoint contemporary stories with events from the past, plenty more produce series of novels revolving around the same set of characters, but in The Lovers of Amherst Nicholson is bold enough to try both in the same book. The result is a success. A beguiling meditation on poetry and love.”
– The Times (UK)
“Although Emily (Dickinson) barely appears in the novel, Nicholson manages to convey the extraordinary, mesmerising power of her poetry without clumsiness. Indeed the 19th-century sections are so historically rich that at times they feel more like biography than fiction."
– The Sunday Times
“His [Nicholson's] greatest achievement, though in The Lovers of Amherst, is to compel us to approach Emily Dickinson’s poetry with fresh eyes.”
– Independent on Sunday
“In this ambitious and brilliantly executed instalment a true historical love story intertwines with an imagined contemporary one."
– The Big Issue in the North
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