Saturday 18 November 2017

Emily, the Poetic Myth that binds generations

The Lovers of Amherst, William Nicholson, Quercus, £22.99

Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Any enquiry into the life of Emily Dickinson requires a deft and delicate hand to adduce what little practical, private detail remains. The lady in white is a shadow in this book and though she has been 'called back' her presence is still palpable in her poetry.

The novel is based on research into Emily Dickinson's family. It is set in the 1880s and counterbalanced with the life in 2013 of 24-year-old Alice Dickinson. As the title suggests, most of the action takes place in Amherst, the town in which Emily Dickinson lived. Nicholson deals with the mystery of Emily through the more public life of her brother, Austin, a lawyer. Correspondence between Austin and the beautiful Mabel Todd, conveys their devotion to each other but to rely entirely on these records as a narrative would have been extremely dull, given that each letter is brimming with encomiums.

Nicholson opens the story with a film treatment of Emily writing. In the next scene, Alice and her ex-boyfriend Jack are discussing her proposed trip to Amherst. Jack has arranged an introduction to Nick Crocker, a lecturer, part enigma, part local lothario, who shares Alice's passion for Emily's poetry.

With two narratives set in Amherst and structured in alternate chapters, it is a brave frame given that the readers concentration is disrupted by moving between centuries. But Dickinson's poetry, radical in its time, is woven throughout. It provides clues to her self-determined world, assured in her expression but is also full of painful restraint, her passion is vicariously experienced through Austin and Mabel.

The commonality of Amherst, its streets and buildings, Emily's poetry discussed by Austin and Mabel in the 19th Century, contrasted with Alice and Nick in the present, tie both narratives together. Immersed in the letters, Alice wonders if it is it just forbidden love, that fuels passion. While, Jack's mother later declares 'passion is all about anxiety'.

The 'Myth' as Emily was known locally, binds them all. And the consolation of the one love, that might be lost or found, is echoed in her words. 'I have none to tell me to but thee'.

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