The Lovers of Amherst by William Nicholson

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The Lovers of Amherst by William Nicholson

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A novel that's split between the factual 1881 ménage a trois of Emily Dickinson's married brother, his lover and lover's husband and a fictional 21st century writer researching it, by the chap who wrote the screenplay for Shadowlands. It's as romantic, intriguing and opinion-polarising as you'd expect; cracking!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: February 2015
Publisher: Quercus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1848666474

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2013: Alice Dickinson has decided to write a screenplay about the 19th century affair between Mabel Todd and Austin Dickinson (no relation). 1881: Austin, brother of reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, has an unhappy marriage but isn't looking for happiness outside it till he meets Mabel. The very liberated Mabel may be married too, but her husband believes in freedom within wedlock. There follows one of the most scandalous relationships to face small town New England; a relationship that Alice wants to research on-site. While there, Alice discovers that inappropriate romance still exists but this is the 21st century so she feels ready for the consequences.

Who better to write of a writer researching a screen play than a writer who's written a few himself? Indeed, in addition to his fiction book back catalogue, British writer/author William Nicholson has credits that reflect a broad spectrum of popular cinema. Mandela, the C S Lewis biopic Shadowlands, Les Miserables and, for light relief, co-writing Gladiator all prove he can tell a story as well as the next award winner and better than many. I was therefore expecting something special to get my teeth into and wasn't disappointed.

Half of William's story is based on fact, triggered by some letters he came across. Emily Dickinson is one of those poets who had to die to become famous. Mabel Todd is the woman who pushed for Emily's poetry to be published posthumously. However the connection goes deeper than that thanks to the encouragement of Mabel's husband, David. Yes, that sort of encouragement but tastefully hinted at rather than glaringly graphic. It was anything but tasteful for those outside the triangle at the time though; it totally devastated Austin's wife Sue for a start.

What image should we take with us of these historical main players? Is Mabel self-serving and selfish or a woman in love with a latterly found soul mate? Is Sue the creator of Austin's misery or a victim of a ruthless woman who gets what she wants? History will attest to both versions depending on whether we listen to the Todds or the Dickinsons. (Even today the families are riven by events.) William cleverly walks the path down the centre leaving little breadcrumbs from both camps' opinions, allowing us to make up our own minds. The other clever thing William does is to set it against Alice's modern day search for the truth and her Amherst affair with Nick, a local lecturer.

From the moment we meet him, are told that Nick is irresistible and Alice states she will not be lured into bed by him, we all know which way the wind will eventually blow. However, that is surprisingly immaterial. Alice may be weak in other departments as well as her knees but the predictability ends there. This is a relationship with some surprises of its own!

As the affair progresses we also remember Jack, the dear, kind bloke that Alice leaves behind. Who will she pick? Eventually the affair becomes an almost mirror image of the Victorian scandal. (No, not the ménage a trois bit but the weak being attracted to the strong.)

William has used Alice as a great way in to the story and to demonstrate how ideas and mores change over time. However it's the 19th century New Englanders who stick in the mind. As well as samples of some beautiful poetry that made me want to read more of the tragic Emily, William plants some fascinating historical factoids. For instance, despite the geographical closeness (Austen and Mabel fully… err… utilised… the ground floor of Emily's house while she was at home) Mabel and Emily never met.

This is definitely a novel where an open mind will be an advantage in many ways and one that sends us away with plenty to think about, a new poet to discover (for some of us) and the realisation that we 1960's children weren't the generation that invented the 's' word after all.

(Thank you, Quercus, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you've enjoyed this and would like to see more of the romantic side of Mr Nicholson, we heartily recommend All the Hopeful Lovers. If it's the historical romance tag that seduces you though, we just as heartily suggest The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts.

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