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...
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