Amherst by William Nicholson

“You can have passion or you can have gratification, but you can’t have both.”

American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) led a reclusive life in Amherst,  Massachusetts, busily writing poems, and while no one really grasped the extent of her work until after her death, many of her poems are full of passion while others are full of her preoccupation with death. The passion in Emily Dickinson’s poems has fascinated readers and critics alike as it adds a mystical sense of romanticism to a reclusive life that was, apparently, devoid of sex and romance.

Amherst, (UK title: The Lovers of Amherst) from British author William Nicholson, is an ambitious novel that follows two interlinking story strands: in the present, Alice Dickinson (no relation), a young, London-based copywriter decides to head to Amherst to investigate background for an idea for a screenplay based on the scandalous love affair between married Mabel Loomis Todd, a faculty wife, and equally married college treasurer, Austin Dickinson, brother of Emily.

amherstIn the second story thread, the novel traces the love affair between Mabel Todd and Dickinson. Orbiting around these two lovers are Emily Dickinson (whose house served as a meeting place for the lovers), Mabel’s compliant husband, and Austin’s wife, Sue who was also Emily Dickinson’s great friend.

In the present, Alice travels to Amherst, and through an old lover, she has a contact in Nick Crocker, an Englishman, an academic (who was) teaching at Amherst College. He’s married to a very wealthy woman, and has a reputation as the college Lothario. Alice stays with Nick and in spite of her initial reservations, she throws herself into a passionate affair with Nick. Alice’s affair with Nick, in terms of age, echoes the affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd. The minute Alice shows up on the scene, the people she speaks to expect her to fall in bed with Nick, and she does…

As the novel progresses, the two story strands follow the arc of these two affairs: Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, and Alice & Nick. Of course there are some similarities between the two relationships, but there are also some marked differences. Whereas Mabel Todd’s entrance into Austin Dickinson’s life seems to be the event he’s been waiting for, Alice, initially forms a very negative opinion of Nick. Here they are on a tour of the Amherst cemetery:

Nick sweeps one arm round the cemetery.

“All these dead people,” he says. “If they could speak, what would they say to us? They’d say, ‘Love all you can, love everyone you can, as much as you can, as often as you can. You’re going to be old and alone soon enough. And you’re going to be dead forever.’ “

He opens the truck door for her to get in.

“Quite a speech,” says Alice. “In praise of promiscuity.”

“Oh, please.”

He shuts the door, goes round to the driver’s side.

“As far as I can tell from our brief acquaintance,” he says, “you’re not a fool.” He starts the engine, makes a three-point turn, backing among the graves.” Spare me the herd-think.”

This interaction between Nick and Alice is indicative of their overall relationship. He argues that “Love isn’t a limited resource. It’s not a cake that’s going to run out. It’s the very opposite. The more you love, the more love there is.” Whether Alice knows it or not, she’s being seduced slowly but surely by Nick’s philosophy. There’s a moment later when she reconsiders her low opinion of Nick and his behaviour towards women, and she seems to almost willingly let go of her arguments against Nick’s philosophy. I don’t buy the scenario of Nick healing the damaged co-eds he beds–that’s an archaic thought and one that sounds like a great excuse, but Alice, probably thanks to her youth, buys it, or perhaps, and this is an intriguing idea, perhaps she wants to believe it as she’s in the frame of mind to throw caution to the winds and engage in a relationship with a much older man as a way of immersing herself in her screenplay. She’s done all the touristy things in Amherst, and perhaps throwing sanity to the winds is the thing she needs to do to ‘feel’ her material. At one point, Alice thinks that the screenplay will focus on Mabel “who chose life in all its mess and hurt, not Emily, who withdrew into the sepulchre of her own room.” Is this the frame of mind that sways Alice into ditching her common sense and begin an affair with Nick?

When the novel began, I thought I’d enjoy the present day relationship more than the 19th century affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd. Strangely enough, both Nick and Alice are uninteresting and clichéd, and fade next to the 19th century adulterous coupling of Mabel Todd and Austin Dickinson. Diary and letters between Austin and Mabel, sometimes rather awkwardly weaved in, reflect the state of mind of these two lovers, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Austin Dickinson’s wife, Sue, who seems to be expected to go along with the programme, and is seen as a bit of a spoilsport for reacting negatively and causing a fuss. The main problem with Austin Dickinson and Mabel’s relationship is so typical–the reader begins to wonder how much is true and how much is imagined, and the author admits he had to imagine the scenes between the lovers. By comparison, Nick and Alice’s affair seems rather like flogging a dead horse. Alice morphs from being a seemingly sensible young woman to being an emo mess. Nick is the standard lothario who excuses his actions by his ‘seize the day’ philosophy, and while that’s certainly a way to get through life, it’s notable that this extends almost exclusively towards sex and not life in general. Plus there’s one very irritating scene in which Alice and Nick, after a romp in bed, in a very typical academic way, analyze the perceived sexual content of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, William Nicholson details the research conducted for the book along with an explanation that his fictional characters have appeared in previous books: The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, All the Hopeful Lovers, Motherland and Reckless.

Review copy.

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8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nicholson William

8 responses to “Amherst by William Nicholson

  1. I admit to having a weakness for fictional books about literary characters, so may investigate this. I actually read the whole review without registering who the author is (one of these days, Guy!) That scene you describe does indeed sound cringeworthy! But I don’t know a great deal about Emily Dickinson, the person, so this does interest me. Great review!

  2. I’m not fond of books about famous people where you keep wondering what is true and what is invented. It spoils my reading.
    I gathered you didn’t enjoy this one much.

    • I liked the touristy parts of the novel but apart from that I was very disappointed. I’ve made a decision to steer away from any fiction about real people unless I have a compelling reason to think otherwise. This comes after this book and another (abandoned) about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  3. I had heard relatively good thing good things about this book from several sources.

    With that, I must admit a little bit of negative feelings toward the tendency of late to create fictional representations of authors. On the other hand this sounds intelligently done.

    I do very much like Dickinson’s work so the “analyses” part sounds interesting too.

    • I get fed up with people/critics reading sex into every damn thing. I was in a class where the professor decided that the lute in Elizabethan poetry was a male phallic symbol. He’d prance around the room reading the poems and then every time he got to the word LUTE, he’d almost shout it out with a satisfaction that he was right, once again.

  4. I’m not sure about this. I’ve got one of his novels here and will read that first.
    I like books about famous people when they are well done but I often find those split timelines a bit annoying. It’s an overused narrative device in my opinion.

  5. Like Emma, I tend to be somewhat wary of books about famous people from the past, so I’m very happy to skip this one.

    I’ve seen a couple of reviews of a recently published novel about Vanessa Bell’s relationship with her sister, Virginia Woolf: Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmer. I’m interested in Woolf, but I think I’d prefer to read a biography or another of her novels.

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