The Lovers of Amherst
My new novel, The Lovers of Amherst, is now out (published as Amherst in the US). It’s in some ways my love letter to the poet Emily Dickinson, who I first encountered over forty years ago. Her poems shock and thrill me as much today as they did then. She herself is so unfathomable that I’ve been shy of writing about her, though over the years I’ve accumulated a great deal of knowledge about her, as well as a first edition of her poems, published in 1890. Then when Polly Longhurst published her edited edition of the letters and diaries of Emily’s brother Austin, relating his passionate adulterous affair with the wife of a colleague, I became fascinated by the world of the Dickinsons. The result is my new novel, which tells the story of that affair, seen alongside a contemporary story, also involving a love affair. Austin Dickinson’s passion for Mabel Todd is fascinating because it was so defiant of all convention – so much so that in order to justify what he was doing he concluded that his love must come from God. Tracking his affair, and Emily’s part in it, led me to reflect on Emily’s own attitude to sex and passion; and from there to my own attitudes. The result is a many-layered meditation on passionate love, with all its self-generated delusions as well as its glories.
The Times: ‘A beguiling meditation on poetry and love… After reading this I’m resolved to become more familiar with Nicholson the novelist and to learn more about Alice, Jack, Nick and Laura’s back stories in novels such as The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. What more could you ask for?’
The Mail on Sunday: ‘William Nicholson’s masterly novel, zigzagging between two contrasting eras, weaves love, sex and poetry together so seamlessly that you can hardly see the joins. You turn the pages compulsively because you care what will happen to the principals, fearlessly following their hearts, deaf to the clamour of alarm bells.’
Financial Times: ‘A compelling reflection on sex and marriage in the 19th century.’
The Independent: ‘William Nicholson’s scrupulously researched story throws fresh light on the extraordinary love affair between Austin Dickinson, 55, and 24-year-old Mabel Todd. We cannot know for sure what they shared in the privacy of Emily Dickinson’s dining room, where they often met, or what she saw and heard, 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 base 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 plausibly as a biographer… While fictional stage directions are a reminder of the writer of Shadowlands lurking in the background, something deeper is afoot. Alice’s problem (aside from tackling her first screenplay) is how to find a way into a story she doesn’t fully understand. With Nick, she discusses the process of storytelling; how to frame her fiction, and whether she needs to care about Mabel.The Lovers of Amherst is a rich writers’ resource. Without Mabel Todd, we may never have known the extent of Dickinson’s creativity. It was Mabel who undertook the task of preserving the letters and poems that survive, bringing order to the 1,800 poems, and pushing forward to publication. Nicholson’s story continues on after the deaths of Emily and Austin to explore the motivations behind Mabel’s efforts. His greatest achievement, though, in The Lovers of Amherst, is to compel us to approach Emily Dickinson’s poetry with fresh eyes.
Sunday Times: ‘…a love letter to an intriguing genius. Nicholson manages to convey the extraordinary, mesmerizing 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.’