In September of 1986, twenty-nine-year-old Roland Michell is sitting in the basement of the London Library examining a book owned by Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Roland’s job is to provide research material on Ash for his adviser, Dr. James Blackadder, but his dissertation is on Ash’s poems and he is hopeful of finding out something new about Ash. Roland is a part-time research assistant funded by Blackadder’s Ash Factory, but is unhappy with his meager earnings and his unsatisfying personal life. Opening the book of poems, Roland sees two letters fall out, revealing the first clues in a mystery that will change Roland’s life.
Roland, intimately familiar with all the known details of Ash’s life, is immediately drawn to the letters, which are addressed to an unknown woman. The subject matter of the letters is completely foreign to Roland, who sees not only that they have never been published but also, more important, that they have never even been seen by anyone other than Ash. The letters present the literary opportunity of a lifetime.
Ash had written love poetry, and he often wrote about romantic love. A woman named Embla was Ash’s muse and the inspiration for much of his work. Ash scholars have debated fiercely who Embla really was. The conventional nature of Ash’s life seems to suggest that Embla was a figment of his imagination; the only woman in Ash’s life was his wife, Ellen, but the fierce love described in Ash’s poetry did not fit their tepid marital devotion. For Roland, the letters suggest that Embla was a real woman. He decides, not without some twinges of guilt, to take the letters and research their meaning himself.
Roland returns home to the dingy basement apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, Val, and wonders if he will ever escape from its fetid reek of failure and cat urine. Although Roland and Val had fallen in love over romantic poems and heady critical debates, the harsh reality of academic life—the A-Levels and Firsts—exposed a troubling insecurity in Val. While Roland does well in his studies, Val, paradoxically, falters. The final blow comes when she fails her final exams. She takes a job as a secretary, but her financial support of Roland comes with a price: He must not only tolerate her disappointment with her life but also her ridicule of his inability to do better. He tells her now about the letters, but Val is completely disinterested in Roland’s find.
Initial research on the setting described in Ash’s letters leads Roland to tentatively identify Embla as Christabel La Motte, a poet and a contemporary of Ash. Roland is unfamiliar with La Motte’s life or works, but he happens to run into a colleague, Fergus Wolff, who advises him to consult with Dr. Maud Bailey. Maud is not only a distant relation of La Motte but also an expert on her poetry. Maud also is well-known in feminist circles and is the keeper of the archive of La Motte’s manuscripts at Lincoln University.
Maud turns out to be beautiful, but she is cold and distant with Roland. He discovers that she is, in fact, La Motte’s great-great-great niece and that Lincoln University’s archive had originally belonged to her great-great-grandmother Maia Thomasina “May” Bailey. Maud reads Roland’s letters and wonders also how they fit into the lives of the conventional Ash and the whimsical La Motte. Maud had assumed that La Motte was lesbian, not only because she had never married but also because she had been known to have had a lesbian relationship with Blanche Glover, an artist. Maud suggests that a trip to her family home in Lincolnshire might prove to be a source of new information about Ash and La Motte.
Maud and Roland keep the purpose of their travels secret, not only because of the legal ramifications of Roland’s initial theft but also because both have become aware of the movements of a well-funded American professor, Dr. Mortimer Cropper, who has offered a great deal of money for the...
(The entire section is 1,965 words.)