William Nicholson is a screenwriter, or at least a co-screenwriter, having shared credits for Shadowlands, Les Miserables and Gladiator. (Although given the scathing things Russell Crowe has said about the Gladiator script, one would think he’d leave that off the resume.)
In Amherst, Nicholson has written another script, albeit one disguised as a novel. It’s a soppy, gloppy rendition of a story that’s already been written: the scandalous love affair between Emily Dickenson’s brother and the wife of an Amherst professor, sanctioned (and possibly encouraged) by the beloved, odd poet herself.
Polly Longsworth told it first, in a 1984 book that was 449 pages and contained the love letters exchanged between Austin Dickenson, who was 53 years old when he fell in love with Mabel Loomis Todd, who was 25. In the small town of Amherst, which was even smaller when the Todds arrived in 1881, little was hidden. Austin Dickenson and Mabel Todd used Emily Dickenson’s dining room for their trysts (specifically, the dining-room couch, if you want too much information), and it’s uncomfortably understood that the poet probably overheard much that went on in the 13-year affair that ended, still blazing, upon Austin’s death.
Adding to an already awkward situation, both spouses knew of the love affair. Mabel’s husband, himself the philandering type, approved because it gave him license to roam. Austin Dickenson’s wife icily did not, but the pair remained married and, like the Todds, are buried side-by-side like more conventional spouses.
Stranger still, although Mabel Dickenson is credited with giving Emily Dickenson her fame — having organized and published the 2,000 poems Dickenson kept locked in a desk — she never met her face to face. They exchanged notes, and Emily wrote Mabel poems (and overheard her ecstasies) but Mabel saw Emily only when she was lying in her coffin.
And you thought your family was strange.
You can’t make this stuff up, but Nicholson gamely tries, interspersing a sparsely written version of the Emily-Austin-Mabel affair with a modern-day parallel, a cloying drama of an aspiring British screenwriter who goes to Amherst to research the tale and – spoiler alert – and stays with a much older, much married man who happens to share some of Mabel and Austin’s free-love notions. At first, Alice Dickenson (yes, he names the fictional screenwriter Dickenson — insert pained sigh) resists his rants about “love as possession, love as ownership, love as property.”
” ‘Look,’ he says, exasperated, ‘I don’t quite know why we’re having this argument, but it seems to me to be perfectly simple. If I love my mother, must I love my father less? If I love one friend, must I love another friend less? 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 there is.’ ”
To which, our heroine Alice replies, “Does your wife agree with you on this?”
The snappy dialogue continues, and there’s a naked swim in a hidden pool, and Nick Crocker, the aging academic, is so, so attractive. As a hundred years earlier, messiness ensues. Like a hundred years earlier, there’s much moralizing.
Mabel and Austin believed that their love was ordained by God, although it was outside the bounds of commonly accepted propriety. Theirs was a complicated passion; the one shared by Alice and Nick, in comparison, seems only tawdry. And the business of Alice (Dickenson!) writing a screenplay within what will someday probably be a screenplay is wearisome on its face.
To be fair, this will probably make an excellent movie, which, one suspects, is the point of the venture. Nicholson has written 13 other books (six of them for children), but the money’s in Hollywood, which is likely where this is headed. Given the sparseness of phrase, it won’t take long for him to adapt it.
As such, the potential reader is probably better served by abandoning this story in favor of the Longsworth book or Lyndall Gordon’s “Lives Like Loaded Guns,” which also chronicles Amherst’s most famous affair. This way, when the movie comes out, there’s a chance you won’t know the ending. A small chance, but a chance, nonetheless.
Originally published in The Hippo.