Book Review: The Lovers of Amherst, by William Nicholson

Amherst US edition  lovers of amherst frontcover UK edition

The Lovers of Amherst (Quercus) £16.99

[Amherst, US edition published by Simon and Schuster, $26]

Wild nights – wild nights!

Were I with thee

Wild nights should be

Our luxury!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) only published a dozen or so poems in her lifetime, but even before Mabel Todd edited the posthumous slim collection of her poems in 1890, she was known locally as “the Myth”. The afterlife of the secretive recluse still ripples across academic circles and the popular imagination; it is surprising to learn that, as recently as 1984, the details about the illicit love affair between Emily Dickinson’s brother and their Amherst neighbour was first brought to public attention in Polly Longsworth’s sympathetic study, Austin and Mabel. More recently, Lyndall Gordon’s 2010 revisionist biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns, dug deeper into the known facts.

But fiction has a truthful purpose too. William Nicholson’s entertaining, respectful story throws fresh light onto the extraordinary love affair between 55-year-old Austin Dickinson and 24-year-old Mabel Todd. We cannot know for certain what the lovers shared in the privacy of Emily Dickinson’s dining room, where they often met, or what she saw and heard there, or the effect on her poetry. By interspersing his narrative with snippets of extant correspondence, diary entries, and secret notes, drawn, mostly, from Longsworth and his own research in the Sterling Memorial Archives at Yale, alongside some of Emily Dickinson’s passionate poems, Nicholson creates a solid historical foundation from which he imaginatively recreates the time period and personalities involved. Moreover, the physical act of researching “the very notes they sent each other with such secrecy” is an integral part of the story, adding an air of factual realism from which he speculates as plausible as a biographer does.

Mavis Loomis Todd (1856-1932) arrived in Amherst in 1881 with her husband, David, who had been appointed director of Amherst College Observatory. Entering into Amherst society, she first struck up a friendship with Susan, Austin’s wife, and thereafter entertained the Dickinson household next door. By then the “Homestead” was occupied by Austin’s sisters, Emily and Lavinia (Vinnie), and their invalid mother. Although Mabel never met Emily (she would listen at the top of the stairs while she played piano and sang), they communicated through notes and gifts.

Running in parallel with the story of Austin and Mabel, is the modern-day story of Alice Dickinson (no relation) who arrives in New England to undertake background research for her screenplay about their affair. Through her lover-turned-friend Jack Broad, Alice gets in touch with Nick Crocker, a visiting professor (with a reputation), and she accepts his offer of temporary accommodation. Alice, Jack, and Nick pull us back to previous books in Nicholson’s interconnected series: in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life (2009) Nick has an affair with Laura Kinross (Broad), while in All the Hopeful Lovers (2010) Laura’s son Jack is put together with Alice through Facebook in much the same way that his response to her Facebook request for information about Emily Dickinson sends her to Nick’s door.

Rowing in Eden –

Ah, the sea!

Might I but moor tonight

In thee!

As she becomes caught up in an affair of her own, Alice reflects on romantic love and passion, and ponders the “I” in Dickinson’s poems and the poet’s relationship to Mabel. “Something true and powerful is at work here. What if it’s something bigger than love? What is there that’s bigger than love?” In New England for just two weeks, her emotional attachment to Nick is perhaps too quickly established, but is nevertheless a necessary part of the storyline.

Emily Dickinson intrudes into the narrative:

Stand at the top of the stairs. Look down into the dark hallway below. She’s there with him, the one he loves, the one I need. A door opens. The rustle of a dress as a half-glimpsed woman passes quickly down the passage, and out of the back door.

While it is but a step from fictional stage directions and camera angles to thinking about the screen version from the writer of Shadowlands lurking in the background, something deeper is going on. Alice’s problem (aside from the fear of tackling her first screenplay) is how to find a way into a story she doesn’t fully understand. “My story, Alice tells herself, is about Mabel, who chose life in all its mess and hurt, not Emily, who withdrew into the sepulchre of her own room. And yet in every picture she forms of Mabel, Emily is near, the listener behind the closed door.” With Nick, she discusses the process of storytelling; how to frame her fiction, and whether she needs to care about Mabel in order to write her story. The Lovers of Amherst is a rich resource for writers.

Without Mabel Todd, we may never have known about the extent of Dickinson’s creativity. It was Mabel who undertook the task of preserving many of the letters and poems that survive, bringing order to the mass of 1800 poems with painstaking transcription, and pushing forward with publication. Nicholson’s story continues on after the deaths of Emily and Austin to explore Mabel’s motivations. His great achievement, though, in The Lovers of Amherst – is to compel us to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry again, with fresh eyes.

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me –

The simple News that Nature told –

With tender Majesty –

‘Parallel Passion & Poetry’: Independent on Sunday, 14 February 2015

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