This is one of those books that going into it, I knew would require a lot of careful reading, patience, and oddly, tapping into some old resentments to enjoy it. I spent a lot of years in and around English departments at multiple levels. I was never a professor, but I’ve seen plenty of drama, and this book is dramatic in some ways, but understated as well.
The novel begins with Roland Michell reading a 150 year old copy of Vico’s The New Science. This book belonged to his literary subject, the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ashe, and he’s looking for annotations. Instead, he finds the unfinished draft of a letter (not a known prolific letter writer) to a woman, implying romantic interest, not his wife. For reasons he can’t quite articulate he takes the letters, despite their being the property of either the British Museum, or the Ashe estate. He pinpoints his best guess of the letter’s recipient, a fellow, more minor poet, Cristobel Lamott, and this leads him to seeking out a Lamott expert, and her literary executor (being in the family) Maude Bailey, at a semi-distant university.
What follows is an incredibly brilliant novel that follows Maude and Roland investigate the letters, reading them together, while negotiating their differing and diverging professional interests, and possibly discovering a series of personal romantic questions that their poets also discovered. In addition, we are treated to the story of the professional impacts of this new discovery has on the very small, but self-important world of Ashe and Lamott scholarship and academic office politics.
In addition to all this is a series of Victorian texts, poems, letters, journals, also telling the stories of these poets .
I think that this book is very satisfying if you’ve spent some time doing literary scholarship or spent time in English departments, or love books. The book really tries to get to the heart of readership.