Emily Dickinson’s poems were the boon of her life, her writings inhabiting her every waking moment. In Amherst, William Nicholson captures this iconic literary figure, her tragic, inspirational writings, and her intricate obsessions of a lonely figure mirrored in the tempestuous, passionate love affair between Emily’s brother, Austin Dickinson, and the young impressionable Mabel Todd, who comes to live at Amherst in the 1880s with David, her loyal husband.
In this story of illicit passion, Nicholson moves from his two Victorian lovers to a modern setting, where English screenwriter Alice Dickinson is turning to the past for answers to her own life. As Alice reads the letters of Mabel and Austin, she connects to their lives, eventually finding the strength within herself to live meaningful life. Having grown up in a world of stories, Alice is attracted to this tale of “adultery at Amherst.” Driven by her hopes and dreams. Alice readily admits the love affair between Mabel and Austin was tremendously passionate. She decides to tell her best friend, Jack, that she’s going to write a screenplay about them.
Nicholson’s novel is essentially a meditation on the nature of love. The lovers act in unison as ghost-like Emily is enthralled by the mysteries of her brother and his new muse. For Alice, Emily becomes the spinster and the recluse, writing sexually charged poems as she listens to Austin and Mabel
while they sit together by the light of a kerosene lamp on a room in the Amherst House on Pleasant Street. At first the attraction between Austin and Mabel is more than the usual minor gratification to Mabel’s vanity. Suddenly there’s a flash of illumination, and Mabel acknowledges the restless dissatisfaction she has felt within her marriage.
"Great love demands a great lover." Grave-faced Austin plunges with gusto into
an affair that is at once scandalous but also quite exhilarating. Taking a leap of faith, Mabel is propelled by David, who adores his wife and indulges her by giving her absolute freedom in what he sees as an “animal coupling.” To Austin, Mrs. Todd “is a little too charming and a little too beautiful.”
At first he treads lightly, intimidated by Mabel but gradually warming to her garrulousness and heartened by their thoughtful conversations.
Austin and Mabel share many lovely moments, and at first there’s nothing indiscreet about their lovely country rambles in the summer and fall of 1882.
As a bond eventually forms between them, astonishing them both, Sue Gilbert, Austin’s long-suffering wife, recognizes Mabel’s stony charm.
She resents Mabel at every turn and despises the fact that this young upstart seems to have become “the belle of Amherst.” Sue’s truculence toward Mabel only makes Austin hate Sue more for “being a wife who was not a wife, a dead woman in his arms.”
Although the book’s contemporary sections fall a bit flat, the book's past and present fold together with Nicholson’s customary flair. Alice finds herself falling in love with dashing Nick Crocker, only to find him psychologically isolating her. A rugged Don Quixote-type, Nick is battered and bruised by life’s upheavals. As the passion in Emily’s poetry makes Alice shiver, she acknowledges that Mabel was something of a trouble-maker and that Austin lived parallel lives: a secret life that found expression on paper, which in turn allowed Mabel’s love for him to flood him with wonder and gratitude.
Alice, meanwhile, discovers much about Nick. In her mind, her feelings for Nick and Mabel and Austin’s affair meld, while Emily’s passionate missives tumble like a rollercoaster into Alice’s present. Amid Emily’s delicate fragments of poetry,
Alice is eventually torn between her passionate attraction for Nick and her need
to move on. Fused tightly to Austin’s sense of propriety, the later sections
have Mabel transcribing and sorting Emily’s poems, eventually falling in love
with the scraps of paper and words that “coil light as springs.” Emily’s poetry comes to symbolize everything that Mabel feels innermost in her heart. Emily was eager for her brother’s lover to embrace life, her passionate pursuit of love, along with the pain of living in the world in which Mabel will ultimately face the coming ache of loneliness.
I liked the novel, and I’m sure it will make a wonderful film (perhaps in the vein of A.S. Byatt’s
Possession), but I was left feeling a bit underwhelmed by Nicholson’s underwritten prose coupled with the irony of Nick as an older man in a plot device that seems to serve as a distraction to the larger issue of Emily’s poetry and the effect it has on Mabel and Austin, and later on Alice.