Saturday, January 10, 2015

Men. Women. Love. "Amherst" by William Nicholson

AmherstI did not like Emily Dickinson's poetry as represented in the school text books until I saw an episode of Meeting of Minds by Steve Allen, his 1977 talk show where historical figures met and discussed ideas. Emily Dickinson read poetry to Attila the Hun-- poetry I would have never associated with Dickinson.

Wild Nights --Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
our luxury!

Futile-the winds--
To a Heart in port--
Done with the Compass--
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden--
Ah--the Sea!
Might I but moor--tonight--
In thee!

I bought the complete poems and discovered a whole new Dickinson.

When I saw Amherst by William Nicholson on NetGalley, with a ghostly Emily Dickinson hovering over her home on the cover, I requested it.

The novel is about Emily's brother Austin Dickinson and his fifteen year relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd. They were both married. I was quite ignorant about Austin and Mabel...but Emily was on the cover!She had to figure into the novel somewhere.

The Simon & Schuster review reads:

From an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and the author of Motherland, a novel about two love affairs set in Amherst—one in the present, one in the past, and both presided over by 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 that took place between a young, Amherst college faculty wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, and the college’s treasurer, Austin Dickinson, in the 1880s. Austin, twenty-four years Mabel’s senior and married, was the brother of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, whose house provided the setting 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 affair that she’s writing about in her screenplay.

Interspersed with Alice’s complicated love story is the story of Austin and Mabel, historically accurate and meticulously recreated from their voluminous letters and diaries. Using the poems of Emily Dickinson throughout, Amherst is an exploration of the nature of passionate love, its delusions, and its glories. This novel is playful and scholarly, sexy and smart, and reminds us that the games we play when we fall in love have not changed that much over the years.


The book is well written and Nicholson nicely interweaves the contemporary and historical stories. Emily's presence is as ghostly as her image on the book cover, the chapters from her viewpoint perhaps as screenwriter Alice has imagined her in her script. The characters share excerpts of Emily's poems. The historical accuracy concerning Austin and Mable and their spouses seem spot on--As the lovers left letters, and Mable a detailed diary, there is little left to the imagination...Except for Emily. Apparently she condoned the affair. She never met Mabel. But...Was she listening or watching the affair as it played out in her home's parlor? Were the lovers the inspiration for Emily's sexy poems, the poems of longing to be with someone who was unavailable? Was Emily in love with Mable, who regularly received poems from her? Or was she in love with some one else? Had she experienced passion-- physical ecstasy-- or did she have a really good imagination?
I cannot live with You – 
It would be Life – 
And Life is over there – 
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to – 
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain – 
Like a Cup – 

Discarded of the Housewife – 
Quaint – or Broke – 
A newer Sevres pleases – 
Old Ones crack – 

I could not die – with You – 
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down – 
You – could not – 

And I – could I stand by
And see You – freeze – 
Without my Right of Frost – 
Death’s privilege?

Nor could I rise – with You – 
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ – 
That New Grace

Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick Eye – 
Except that You than He
Shone closer by – 

They’d judge Us – How – 
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to – 
I could not – 

Because You saturated Sight – 
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be – 
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame – 

And were You – saved – 
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not – 
That self – were Hell to Me – 

So We must meet apart – 
You there – I – here – 
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer – 
And that White Sustenance – 
Despair – 
I was uncomfortable with the kinky aspect of Mabel and Austin's affair conducted with the consent of Mabel's husband David. I really didn't want to go into it. Why did I request this book? It was creepy. Nicholson puts forward that Mable and her husband David advocated an open marriage because people can love more than one person, and it won't affect a marriage where there is love and affection.  I am no spring chicken, I remember the open marriage, free sex 1960s-70s. Today's young people 'hook up', sex without strings. But I really didn't want to know the details disclosed in Mabel's diary concerning how she merged two lovers into her life. Even if she was responsible for getting Emily's poems into print. I wanted to like Alice, but ended up ambiguous about her. And Nick was such a handsome hunk of loser. 

Alice struggles with how these 19th c lovers sustained a passion for fifteen years. They believed their love was pure, justified, and consecrated, that they were ordained for each other. Alice and Nick debate the issue, bringing their own experiences, and failures, into the discussion. Alice wants to believe in true love, kindred spirits, and a perfect match made in heaven. Nick is a pessimist who lives in the moment and conducts short term affairs. Did Austin and Mabel sustain their affair for so long because they were true soul mates, or was it the danger and sneaking around that made it so exciting? Do we delude ourselves into false beliefs to justify what we want? Does requited love resolve loneliness? Does gratification result in boredom or completion? Is the chase what is exciting? Do we have only one chance of getting it right? Do we only want what others want? 

And what do we want? It seems that we want Darcy. Jane Austen heroes and heroines have become cultural icons. Lizzy and Darcy are to swoon for. Like Alice, we still want the fairy tale princes. Experience be damned. Hope springs eternal.

My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing the ebook for a fair and unbiased review.

Amherst: A Novel
by William Nicholson
Simon & Schuster
Publication February 10, 2015
$26 hardbound
ISBN: 9781476740409