March 3, 2015
By Rachel Rogol

Even if you’ve never heard his name, chances are you’re familiar with William Nicholson’s work. An award-winning screenwriter whose film credits include Shadowlands, Gladiator, Elizabeth: the Golden Age and Les Misérables, among others, Nicholson is also an acclaimed author who writes both for adults and younger readers.

His most recent project is Amherst, a historical novel that intersperses a fictional modern-day love story with the historically accurate love affair between Austin Dickinson (brother of Emily Dickinson and Amherst College Treasurer from 1873 until his death in 1895) and his mistress Mabel Loomis Todd (wife of David Todd, Class of 1875, who served the college as Instructor in Astronomy and Director of the Observatory). Both the Dickinson and Todd families were intimately involved in the life of Amherst College from its very beginning.

Nicholson's new novel recreates Austin and Mabel's scandalous affair from numerous letters between the two and cites snippets of Emily Dickinson's poems throughout. "It's in some ways my love letter to the poet Emily Dickinson, who I first encountered over forty years ago," Nicholson wrote on his blog. "Her poems shock and thrill me as much today as they did then."

The story takes place in three historic houses that still exist today in downtown Amherst: the former Alice Maud Hill house, now home of the Amherst Woman's Club; the Homestead, where Emily Dickinson lived and wrote most of her poetry; and the Evergreens, where Austin lived with his wife Susan and their three children. Together, the Homestead and the Evergreens make up the Emily Dickinson Museum, which was created in 2003 when the two houses merged under the ownership of Amherst College.

"Nicholson's Amherst is a delightful blend of lively imagination and deeply researched historical detail,” said Emily Dickinson Museum Director Jane Wald in a press release. “We hope his novel sparks new interest in the Dickinson family and their dramatic stories among his readers."

On Sunday, March 8, Nicholson will join Polly Longsworth, author of Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, and moderator Christopher Benfey, author of The Dickinsons of Amherst, for a brief reading from Amherst followed by a conversation about his inspiration, research and experience writing it.

When Longsworth published her book, "I became fascinated by the world of the Dickinsons," writes Nicholson. "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 reading and conversation with Nicholson takes place Sunday, March 8, at 3 p.m. at the Amherst Woman's Club, 35 Triangle St. in downtown Amherst, and is free and open to the public. Amherst will be available for purchase from Odyssey Books.