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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144

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 purchase of Ash manuscripts and memorabilia. He also would be more than happy to steal the academic fruits of Roland’s and Maud’s work.

The trip to the Bailey home reveals a hidden store of Ash’s letters to La Motte, and of letters that La Motte had sent to Ash. The intimacy Roland and Maud had seen only in brief references had been, in actuality, a full-fledged love affair. While Ash’s love for La Motte had inspired him to write most of his greatest poems, La Motte’s passion for Ash had taken away the freedom she previously enjoyed in her life. She had broken up with Ash and unexpectedly left England. Her departure drove her other lover, Blanche, to suicide.

Deeply inspired by the romance of Ash and La Motte, Roland and Maud begin to realize their feelings for each other. Neither has ever really felt as fully accepted and valued by their respective lovers as they now do with each other. It seems only natural, then, that together they seek to know the whole story of Ash and La Motte.

Dr. Leonora Stern, another La Motte scholar, provides some of the answers Roland and Maud seek; Leonora had received a letter from a young French La Motte scholar who had found a journal written by a young cousin of La Motte. When Roland and Maud track down the journal, they discover that La Motte had, in fact, been pregnant and had gone to Brittany to give birth to her illegitimate child. What remains a mystery, however, is what La Motte did with the child. Not knowing where else to look, Roland and Maud inspect Ellen Ash’s journal, which reveals that she kept La Motte from seeing Ash on his deathbed. She also wrote that when Ash had died, she had placed certain letters and artifacts from La Motte in his grave to prevent them from becoming public knowledge.

The scholars’ make a final journey to Ash’s grave, during a fierce rainstorm, to discover the truth: Maud’s great-great-grandmother May was not La Motte’s niece, but her daughter by Ash. Ellen Ash’s fear of sexual intercourse kept her from consummating her marriage with Ash, and Ash could not consequently resist the lure of passion offered by the sensual La Motte. Maud is the descendent of both poets and, being legally the owner of both Ash and La Motte’s personal effects, is able to foil Cropper’s schemes and guarantee Roland that he, as well as any future scholar, will be able to do groundbreaking critical research on Ash and La Motte. Roland will never again have to live a life defined by failure.

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