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Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd Hardcover – March 1, 1984

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--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews


One of the most explosive books ever published about social and sexual mores in nineteenth-century America.

(New York Review of Books)

It would be a rare novel that could rival the story of illicit love between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, the 'Amherst Affair' as recreated here by Longsworth.... [This book presents] the full, mesmerizing, bizarre account through the copious Dickinson--Todd letters and diary excerpts.... Irresistible reading and a literary event.

(Publishers Weekly (boxed review))

Beyond the interest it has for Dickinson scholars, this tale has a certain exemplary force, as spectacles of human passion frequently do.... Mabel Todd is so interesting that one wishes for more of her. The diary passages with which Mrs. Longsworth expands and explains the account appear as fascinating as the letters, whose tone of rapture must have been hard to sustain.

(New York Times Book Review)

Offers a compelling look at the passion shared by two ill-fated lovers.... [Longsworth] is a sensitive, clear-eyed observer of the affair. Her portraits of the protagonists -- especially Sue Dickinson -- are perceptive and subtle, her research meticulous, and her annotations illuminating. Drawing upon diaries, journals, other correspondence and the voices of assorted minor actors in this drama, Longsworth presents a full and moving account of the tangled, tortured, yet often joyous relationship.

(Boston Sunday Globe)

Solidly documented and as readable as the best novels,... it is a bizarre chronicle, proverbially stranger than fiction. Longsworth narrates it with great skill, making copious use of letters and journals.

(Wall Street Journal)

There is more to Austin and Mabel than True Romance. Wisely letting her material speak for itself, Longsworth has managed to recreate the flavor of 19th-century middle-class life in New England.

(New Leader) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Polly Longsworth is author of The World of Emily Dickinson.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 449 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux (T) (March 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374107165
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374107161
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,365,102 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Austin and Mabel is an amazing record of 19th century adultery.
F. Orion Pozo
Full disclosure: I won a copy of this book from the Facebook page for The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, and I promised to review the book for them once I'd read it.
At their best his remarks and insights on the nature of love are profound.
R. C. Ross

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By William E. Adams on December 7, 2001
Format: Paperback
Emily Dickinson is often a religious poet, and more often than many think, an erotic one. She is famous for her mysteries and contradictions and elusiveness. She died and left more than l700 poems, many almost indecipherable, and a number of them "uncertainly finished." Her sister Vinnie wanted the works to see print, but could not persuade her brother Austin's wife Sue to get the job done, so she turned to Austin's mistress, Mabel, who was also married. This is the lovers' story, told through 13 years of self-justifying letters and diary entries. More importantly, it is the story of how Mabel took on the job of copying and editing the poems to please her lover, and perhaps to irritate her enemy, Sue. Emily became famous about five years after she died due to Mabel's efforts. Polly Longsworth did a fine job condensing love letters and diary entries to give us a picture of these tormented souls, whose relationships all ended badly. The actual love letters between Austin and Mabel clearly show that neither had Emily's literary talent, but both had her passion. Where Emily apparently suppressed carnality, her brother and his "other woman" reveled in it. If you are as fascinated by Emily's life as you are by her poetry, this part of the tale, while largely occurring after she died, is essential to know. A very worthwhile addition to the saga of Emily Dickinson.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Fox in a Box on November 1, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Great book. Richly detailed, magnificently researched, well-written. This is an Emily Dickinson soap opera starring her brother -- intellectual, lawyer and poor-soul Austin; his working-class, salon-running and ultimately bitter wife Sue, his cute and much younger Bohemian but not-so-psychologically-insightful longtime lover Mabel Loomis Todd, and her handsome, cuckholded-but-understanding husband David.

Then there's the love nest next door presided over by Austin's spinster sisters (the spooky one writes, the workhorse cooks), the snarky gossips of Amherst, and the creepy, decades-long emotional battle twixt Emily-Lavinia (then Mabel) and Susan for dear Austin's heart and soul.

The only thing missing are LaToya and Joe.

You can't go wrong with this one. Wotta mess -- and so lovingly described! It's more than you ever wanted to know about the Belle of Amherst and her dark and squirrely clan. Best taken with a couple of shots of GOOD Tequila.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By R. C. Ross on June 25, 2011
Format: Paperback
Written with sensitivity and perception, Polly Longsworth shows an astute, balanced judgement and deeply sympathetic understanding of the nightmare complexities involved in this moving and tragic story - involving a family that has still an almost irresistible magnetic attraction on anyone who gets close enough to its force-field! The light the author shines on the tone and nature of Emily's friendship with Mabel is more positive than the more naive version generally accepted.

The introductory chapters and the linking passages between letters (never intrusive but always illuminating) show a far more plausible and convincing assessment of the realities of this whole relationship than that found in `Lives Like Loaded Guns', Lyndall Gordon (where the author's quirky ideas and somewhat fascile judgement contrast disappointingly with her meticulous research).

The letters themselves are often deeply affecting, revealing two people who understood one another with a rare and beautiful fullness. Austin's contribution to their loving correspondence on occasions rises to a fine pitch of pure eloquence (for instance on pages 138, 155, 185f, 187f, 188-190, 194f). At their best his remarks and insights on the nature of love are profound. At times the correspondents appear to be wholly and destructively self-obsessed, at other times the words with which they understand their love breathe with powerful, generative insight. The tragedy becomes unbearable during the few days of Austin's final illness and death.

One thing becomes clear from the relationship that is the subject of this book and that is that a relationship of this depth and complexity deserves a more appropriate designation that the vague and trivial term most often used to describe it: `an affair'!
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