By William Nicholson
Simon & Schuster
320 pages, $26
By Margaret Sullivan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
She was known as The Myth, this middle-aged recluse who turned out to be one of the best-known poets in American history. Even today, many a schoolchild learns to recite “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” Many a writer quotes her line on hope – “the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.” And many a lover understands very well her reference to “Wild nights! Wild nights!”
But enduring fame and admiration came only after Emily Dickinson’s death in 1886. While she lived, writing constantly and squirreling away hundreds and hundreds of poems, she was no celebrity – much more an oddity – in her hometown of Amherst, Mass.
Hers is a compelling story despite its lack of action, and one that has captured the creative imagination before. William Luce’s play “The Belle of Amherst” had a Broadway run 40 years ago with Julie Harris in the one-woman role, and was revived off-Broadway recently with Joely Richardson as the introspective but lively poet, always clad in white.
Now, the prolific British author and screenwriter William Nicholson has taken Dickinson’s hermetic life and imagined it anew. But the focus of his novel widens beyond Emily herself to include two romantic couples – one 19th century and drawn from real life, the other 21st century and fictional.
As a result, Nicholson’s “Amherst” is full of romance, adultery and sex, even though it has as its core a solitary (and probably virginal) poet.
The first couple is the poet’s married brother, Austin, and his paramour, his married neighbor, Mabel Todd, who eventually would become a crucial champion of Emily’s poetry. Nicholson draws heavily from and credits Polly Longsworth’s 1984 history of this scandalous open secret, much of which took place in the home that Emily shared with her sister. (And perhaps, he suggests, it was listening in on her brother’s affair that allowed her to write of wild nights and their exclamation points.)
The second couple is a young would-be screenwriter, Alice Dickinson – no relation, but drawn to the poet, and the real-life story of Austin and Mabel, because of the coincidence of their last names. Based in England, Alice makes a research trip to the college town in Massachusetts and hooks up with a (married but divorcing) professor-cum-stud named Nick Crocker. The two relationships echo each other in various ways, not least of which is that the men are some 30 years older than the women in both cases. And that neither of them is likely to result in long-term happiness.
This switching back and forth between the historical and contemporary recalls “Julie & Julia,” the 2009 movie whose screenplay by Nora Ephron weaves parallel plots about Julia Child and a young cooking blogger, or “Sarah’s Key,” the novel and then film that does the same with a story of Nazi-occupied France in 1942 and modern-day Paris.
Nicholson manages the device deftly, usually in alternating chapters. He has plenty of experience with depicting historical figures or time periods, having adapted “Les Misérables” for the movies, written the screenplay for “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and brought C.S. Lewis to the screen in “Shadowlands,” earning Oscar nominations for the last two.
He captures the way an initially cerebral connection can catch fire, and how romantic love can morph from paradise to pain. Using bits of Dickinson’s poetry to illuminate past and present alike, he suggests along the way that the poet’s soul knows something that the body may not.
“Amherst” is always engaging, if at times a little glib. Some of its passages sing, but too many induce a slight cringe, as with Alice’s musings: “There are so many journeys in a life. Each new road leads to a destination that becomes, in turn, a new beginning.”
The novel’s dramatic visual scenes – the views of nature that inspire the romance of Austin and Mabel, the mountain hideaway where Nick and Alice play out their last moments together – seem made for a screenplay yet to come. At times, this story seems as if it might be more at home on the screen than on the page; it wouldn’t be surprising if that happened.
Despite their echoes and similarities, the two stories aren’t always cohesive. And the emotional bond they share is sometimes tenuous.
But, in the end, Nicholson not only gives us an entertaining and often touching novel but also does a larger service. He reminds us of how well Dickinson knew the human heart, including its loneliness, and that humans, of any century, yearn for deep connection, often against the odds.
In the romantic stories of “Amherst,” old and new, a single Dickinson line makes this point, appearing and reappearing as a leitmotif: “I’ve none to tell me to but Thee.”
The Myth may not have known everything about love, but she knew enough.
Margaret Sullivan is the public editor of the New York Times and the former editor of The Buffalo News.