By alternating the story of the past with the actions of the future, A. S. Byatt reminds the reader that literature preserves that part of the living past that can be communicated, whereas history can record only the known actions of dead bodies. Even actual genetic heritage may remain unrecorded in a patriarchy, in which a man knows he is a father because a woman tells him so. At the same time, the idea or romance captured in literature lives on cyclically, however dead the people imagining or experiencing it may be. The literary present can inspire present actions, a contemporary expression of the ongoing human story, as the stories of Ash and Christabel inspire those researchers whose quests open them to new ideas.
Encouraging her reader to let go of things, Byatt resurrects the hope that can help balance fear, the romance or idea that can be made real once again in one’s own time and place, enabling one to enjoy Proserpina’s garden of life married to death. From the past, Byatt recalls the passion that creates both art and life itself. This unique document novel lets its reader recapture the Victorian period in representative poetry and composite characters that resemble known literary figures of the time. The more clues one recognizes, the more the novel can offer one. So too does an earlier literature emerge in the allusions to myths and symbols of Celtic goddess lore that Byatt borrows from Robert Graves’s The White Goddess.
Yet literature is not the only language that Byatt re-creates. Ash tells his story of love in his Ask to Embla poems, the title of which easily translates to refer to the ash and ember of his and Christabel’s passion. It also suggests, however, that one should ask the emblems of the text for clues. Pictorial emblems explained in the text are common in English literature. Each of Byatt’s twenty-eight chapters and the postscript begin with an emblem of two woodcut flowers, with a single smaller woodcut flower indicating breaks within chapters. Marching in twos above the chapter headings, however fragmented the lone flowers may reveal the chapters to be within themselves, the emblems promise a series of pairings and sharings, correspondences and marriages.
The many languages of nature also speak forth in the novel. Graves writes of the runic alphabet and the language of trees in his study, and Byatt offers some examples in her names: from Ash himself to the Rowan Tree Inn. The language of flowers is mentioned more than once as well. Retracing the steps of the Victorian lovers, Maud and Roland visit a jewelry store run by an old woman who shows them brooches carved in this language: “clematis and gorse and heartsease—which is to say Mental Beauty and Enduring Affection and ‘I am always thinking of you.’ You should buy that for the young lady. Better than old hair.”
While they visit the location of the past lovers’ tryst, the potential lovers of now are reminded that the most enduring aspect of love is in memories, the love of the spirit. Furthermore, the natural image of flowers, a recurring metaphor for love, is to be preferred to the dead relic of the loved one’s hair. Love is not an object that deteriorates and decays. Why possess things from the past when nature and art offer recurrent life and living passion?
Physical love and beauty remain in their brief moment, while their memory endures to transform the future. Thus, Christabel will write in her final letter to Ash that she no longer regrets losing their moments of passion as much as she misses their shared writings and their “trusting minds which recognized each other.”
The emblem further reminds the reader that the flowering of nature is always new, always recurring, unique to each flower yet common to the natural world—a promise that such is equally true of human nature. When Ash realizes his love for Christabel, he finds words for everyone, and she observes that he is in love with the world. In the particular love, then, universal love may be discovered.