Characters Discussed

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Randolph Henry Ash

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Randolph Henry Ash, a famous Victorian poet. Both his art and his life reveal a man who discovers the life of the mind first and the love of his life much later. He has hidden stories to tell to whomever can enter into correspondence with him.

Christabel LaMotte

Christabel LaMotte, who lives a sheltered life as a single Victorian woman, first with her friend Blanche Glover and later in the attic of her sister’s home. Her art is not widely appreciated, suggesting gender attitudes that survive the Victorians and divide the modern researchers, who study them.

Ellen Ash

Ellen Ash, Randolph’s wife, whose Victorian values demand that she hide the truth even in her grave.

Blanche Glover

Blanche Glover, Christabel’s companion, whose death raises questions about love and gender.

Roland Mitchell

Roland Mitchell, the protagonist. He has a doctorate in literature but has found only a bleak position as a research assistant. His live-in relationship with Val is equally bleak. They met as students; inertia and failure have kept them together. Roland’s research keeps him buried in the London Library until he discovers evidence of a correspondence between Ash and LaMotte. His ensuing quest carries him back in touch with life and reveals him to be Ash’s spiritual descendant.

Maud Bailey

Maud Bailey, a lecturer at the University of Lincoln. She is an expert on, as well as a direct descendant of, Christabel LaMotte. An icy but beautiful exterior attests her ordered single life before Roland involves her in his quest. She too will discover that the journey into the living past is a journey home to the buried self.

James Blackadder

James Blackadder, the scholar who employs Roland in his “Ash Factory.” He grows by joining the quest and sharing it with Leonora Stern.

Beatrice Nest

Beatrice Nest, a diligent worker in the Ash Factory, preserving the story of Ash’s wife, Ellen. She learns what happens when the buried past and the buried self are both exposed to the open air.

Leonora Stern

Leonora Stern, an American scholar who shares with Maud Bailey more than an interest in LaMotte’s poetry. She learns much about British and American, and male and female, correspondences on her quest.

Mortimer Cropper

Mortimer Cropper, an American who deals in death. He provides an apt antagonist for the living and the dead who confront him on the quest.


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Byatt creates two sets of characters, Victorian and modern; the Victorian characters are not only the professional focus of most of the modern characters but in some cases are their ancestors. The Victorians are so well characterized that some readers have assumed that they were real people rather than fictional creations — Byatt even includes some of "their" poems in the novel — and in fact they seem to be based in part on actual Victorian poets.

Randolph Ash, poet and dramatist, resembles the two great Victorian poets Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Ash's poetry is like Browning's in the range of subjects and the use of the dramatic monologue; Browning, self-educated, was sometimes accused by critics of obscurity, a characteristic shared by Ash's poetry on subjects such as Scandinavian mythology. Ash marries at thirty-four, the same age as Browning did, and both the fictional and real poets married somewhat older women. Ash's courtship, however, is more like Tennyson's, and Ellen Ash resembles Tennyson's wife. Like Emily Tennyson, Ellen Ash postponed her marriage because of concern over her betrothed's religious convictions, or a suspected lack thereof, as revealed in his poetry.

The other major Victorian character, Christabel, is...

(The entire section contains 903 words.)

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Critical Essays