This novel uses dense and skillful language to tell the story of two scholars of poetry who are drawn to learn more about the relationship between two Victorian poets. When Roland discovers a love letter written by the poet RH Ash, the subject of his dissertation, in a book, he realizes the letter was previously unseen and that it may be to another famous female poet, Christabel Lamotte, who had been thought to be a lesbian. The discovery has the potential to change the body of scholarship about the two poets' lives and work.
The imagery of fountains in the novel is often expressed in the titles of works about Lamotte by feminist scholars. Roland is described reading them:
He leafed through the chapter headings: 'From Venus Mount to the Barren Heath'; 'Female Landscapes and Unbroken Waters, Impenetrable Surfaces'; 'From the Fountain of Thirst to the Armorican Ocean Skin'"
The fountain is a symbol of female sexuality (as opposed to fire which is often associated with male sexuality); along with other bodies of water fountains are equated with the powerful and ever-changing nature of women's emotions. The flowing of water is also symbolic of the fluidity of women's sexuality, in this case Lamotte's bisexuality. Fountains and springs also are prevalent in English and Celtic folklore which also figure heavily in the story.