British author William Nicholson is well known as a screenwriter, playwright and novelist. Recently, Nicholson has been writing a series of novels about an extended British family between World War II and the present. Amherst brings back some of the characters from this series (though no knowledge of earlier episodes is necessary) and uses them to examine an improbable real-life literary romance: the 12-year love affair between Emily Dickinson's brother Austin and Mabel Loomis Todd, the much younger woman who edited the first volumes of Emily's poems after her death.
In the present-day story, the central character is Alice Dickinson (no relation to Emily), a 25-year-old advertising copywriter with literary aspirations. Offered the chance to have a screenplay considered for development, Alice settles on the Austin-Mabel romance as a subject and decides to use two weeks' vacation to travel to Amherst, Massachusetts for research. She has not yet figured out a satisfactory conclusion for her story and is also a bit baffled at what Mabel (also in her mid-20s at the time) saw in a married man twice her age. It turns out that her trip will enlighten her in ways she never expected.
Alice's ex-boyfriend Jack puts her in touch with Nick Crocker, a visiting literature professor at Amherst College. When Alice arrives she soon discovers that Nick and his wealthy wife live in the largest house in town and that he has a reputation as the local Casanova. Nick is charming, attractive, and as much of an Emily Dickinson devotee as Alice. Accepting his offer to stay in his guest room (his wife is away and in the process of getting an amicable divorce), Alice soon finds herself caught up in a passionate affair while she tries to focus on her research and writing.
In alternating chapters we are given a look at Amherst in the 1880s--mostly from Mabel's perspective, but with occasional glimpses of Emily's thoughts. During this period, Austin Dickinson is Amherst's leading citizen. He and his wife, Susan (Sue), live with their three children in a house his father built for him next door to the family home where Emily lives with her more practical and prosaic sister Lavinia (Vinnie). Austin is experiencing a major midlife crisis; he feels that he has wasted his life by remaining in Amherst at the family law firm, and his marriage to Sue has become physically and emotionally unsatisfying.
Mabel and David Todd arrive in town in 1881 when David becomes a science professor at the college. The Todds have what would now be called an open marriage; David made it clear when they became engaged that he would continue to be involved with other women and encouraged Mabel to do the same with other men. Mabel is well aware that men are drawn to her, and she enjoys flirting with Austin's 20-year-old son Ned, who develops a major crush on her. But things turn much more serious when Mabel and Austin bond over their mutual love of nature. Mabel soon realizes that, unlike David, Austin's whole existence revolves around his love for her, and she finds this irresistible. Sue, who had originally found Mabel charming, turns hostile when she realizes what is going on. By 1883, Austin and Mabel are meeting for passionate trysts in the dining room of Emily's and Vinnie's home.
So where is Emily Dickinson in all this? Did she approve of the affair, and how did she feel about Mabel? Though Mabel spent many hours in Emily's home as a guest of Vinnie Dickinson, she never met Emily face to face. Alice decides that Emily may have actively encouraged her brother's love affair so that she could experience it vicariously--and she may have concluded that Mabel was the most likely person to champion her poetry after her death from kidney failure in 1886. (Despite his love for his sister, Austin never thought much of Emily's writing). By the time Alice leaves Amherst, her screenplay's focus has become the Emily-Mabel connection, and she has found her ending.
Nick tells Alice at one point that we all create an Emily Dickinson in our own image, based on the interpretation of her writing that speaks to us personally. Nicholson's version of the poet and the woman who rescued her from oblivion is as valid as any and makes an absorbing and moving story, though he does downplay Emily's relationship with Sue, whose letters and remarkable obituary of her sister-in-law reveal that she treasured her as both a person and a poet. In fact, one of the great ironies of Emily Dickinson scholarship is that Mabel and Sue, who loathed each other for thirty years, were probably Emily's two most discerning readers during her lifetime.