What is the significance of the novel's final scene?
The novel's final scene reveals that everyone has been wrong in assuming Ash never met his daughter. Significantly, it is not that there are no clues to the meeting, but rather that the clues are misinterpreted: when the scholars find a lock of blonde hair in Ash's grave, they assume it belongs to Christabel, because Ellen Ash has made the same assumption. This incident shows how even meticulous researchers only ever have an imperfect ability to capture the past, and there will always be mistakes and misunderstandings. It also highlights the power of small coincidences: May's forgetfulness completely changes the course of events, and the way that history will be recorded.
How does the novel critique literary research and scholarship?
The novel makes it clear that the intentions and objectives of scholars are always muddied. All of the figures in the novel approach the writers they study with a sense of personal connection, not from a purely critical and objective place. This curiosity and personal connection is part of what drives them to be dedicated and committed: Beatrice Nest would not work as hard as she does if she did not feel a sense of loyalty to Ellen Ash, and Maud and Roland would not have spent months pursuing their quest if they did not care about what Christabel and Ash felt and lived through. However, Cropper's obsessive, ruthless, and destructive passion for Ash scholarship reveals the dark side that these interests can have. At the same time, the pursuit of literary understanding as a career rather than a vocation has also changed the way the scholars operate in relation to their study: as Kate Mitchell explains, "Knowledge is specialised and demarcated between disciplines, and the study of literature has become professionalised. Her scholars read Ash’s texts not, primarily, to allow their voices to speak, but to produce complex analyses of them, to take intellectual possession of them" (pg. 96).
Is Roland justified in stealing the letters at the start of the novel?
By most scholarly standards, Roland taking the letters he finds instead of properly documenting the discovery is inappropriate. However, once she finds out about the mystery, Maud agrees that the discovery should be kept secret, which suggests that Roland is not alone in feeling that it is important that few people know about the discovery until more information is available. The chaos, quarreling, and even criminal behavior that arises once other scholars, especially Cropper, get wind of the discovery also indicates that Roland may have been justified in stealing and hiding the letters.
How does the novel depict different experiences of femininity during the Victorian era?
All of the female characters from the Victorian era are in some ways trapped or stifled by the expectations of femininity. As Jane Campbell explains, "In the nineteenth-century plot, Byatt uses four women—Christabel, Blanche, Sabine, and Ellen—to explore the restrictions of women’s lives and their limited opportunities for self-expression" (pg. 113). Christabel, Sabine, and Blanche are all interested in creative careers such as writing or painting, but struggle to find ways to lead independent and autonomous lives that will allow them to pursue their work. The experience of romantic and sexual desire is also complex for all of these female characters. Blanche is frustrated when she feels that her desire for Christabel is threatened and Christabel's life is largely shaped by the fact that she lives in a time period that did not permit divorce, and where being a single mother was not socially acceptable. On the surface, Ellen Ash seems to successfully embody many of the ideal qualities of a Victorian woman but these social conventions also require that she devote most of her life to Ash rather than pursuing interests of her own. Her fearfulness and anxiety about sex also stem from a repressive culture that has taught her to be ashamed of her body and her desires.
What is the significance of the poetry and tales embedded into the text?
Byatt could have conveyed the plot of her novel simply through the letters and the scenes set in both Victorian and modern times. Her inclusion of poetry and stories that she presents as having been written by Ash and Christabel allows for a deeper immersion in the emotional experiences of the two writers. By including these writings, Byatt also asks readers to put themselves in the position of critics and investigators. Since the novel's plot illustrates how context and biographical knowledge can significantly change the meaning of how a piece of literature is interpreted, Byatt creates an opportunity for readers to engage in their own exploration and interpretation of poetry and prose.