The novel opens in September 1986 with Roland Michell performing research at the London Library. He is a specialist on the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, having recently completed his PhD on Ash. Roland studied under the supervision of Professor James Blackadder and now works at a research centre located in the British Museum, where Ash's wife, Ellen, donated many of his papers and manuscripts. On this day, Roland is looking at potential sources that might have influenced Ash's poem Garden of Proserpina. In particular, Roland is interested in inspecting Ash's copy of a book by the 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. Roland is surprised to find that the book does not seem to have been inspected by any other scholars, especially since anything related to Ash tends to be thoroughly investigated by the aggressive American scholar Mortimer Cropper, who is at work on an edition of Ash's complete correspondence. Cropper and Blackadder are scholarly rivals, and Blackadder suspects that Cropper is trying to obtain materials related to Ash and take them to a collection housed at a university in New Mexico. The book also seems to contain notes written by Ash. Roland is given permission to inspect these notes, since he is working as the research assistant to Professor Blackadder.
As he reviews Ash's notes on the text, Roland finds two letters tucked between the pages of the book. They are written in Ash's hand and addressed to an unnamed woman, simply referred to as "Madam." The first one refers to Ash having met a woman at a breakfast hosted by Crabb, and been struck by the conversation they had. He hopes to be able to meet with her to continue getting to know her. The second letter is an expanded version of the same content, and refers to the woman's comments on a set of Ash's poems contained in a volume called Gods, Men and Heroes. This detail allows Roland to deduce the letters were written sometime after 1856, but he doesn't know who the woman was. He decides to try and find out by looking through the papers of the man who hosted the breakfast, Crabb Robinson. Roland is intrigued by the idea of whether these letters might mark the start of a longer correspondence, which might shed light on either Ash's poetry or his personal life. Impulsively, he takes the letters with him when he leaves the library.
Roland returns to the flat he shares with his girlfriend Val, whom he has been dating since they were undergraduates. Val originally had ambitions of literary scholarship but her work was received poorly. While Roland has always been a brilliant student, he has been struggling to make ends meet since completing his graduate studies, and Val's work for a temp agency is their primary source of income. Roland suspects he would be happier if he were single, but his life is intertwined with Val, especially since he has been applying unsuccessfully to academic jobs. Recently, a scholar named Fergus Wolff was hired instead of Roland for a desirable position in the department, and Roland suspects this is because Fergus's work is more contemporary and theoretical than his own.
The next day, Roland makes copies of the letters and searches through the diary of Crabb Robinson, trying to see if he can find mention of the party where Ash would have met the woman he wrote to. He finds an entry from June 1858, where Robinson describes a party attended by Ash, several other guests, and a woman named Miss LaMotte, where poetry was discussed. However, Robinson did not seem to note any unusually stimulating conversation. Roland goes to see Blackadder, whose career is devoted to the monumental task of editing Ash's Complete Poems and Plays; Blackadder works with the support of Lord Ash, who is the oldest living descendent and owner of any unsold manuscripts. Roland tells Blackadder about the notes he discovered in Ash's book, but not about the letters. Roland also asks about a female writer named LaMotte, whom Blackadder identifies as Christabel LaMotte, who wrote some poems and fables. When Roland runs into Fergus Wolff, he asks him about Christabel and Fergus adds that Christabel wrote a long poem called The Fairy Melusina, which has become popular with feminist critics. Fergus learned about Christabel after he had a short affair with a scholar named Maud Bailey, who is an expert on her. He tells Roland that Maud works at Lincoln University and should be his starting point if he wants to learn anything about Christabel.
Roland promptly travels to Lincoln, reading about Christabel along the way. She was of both French and English origin, and her father was a noted scholar of mythology. Christabel had one sister, Sophie, who married a wealthy man named George Bailey and went to live with him at Seal Court. Christabel used an inheritance to live with a woman named Blanche Glover; contemporary critics believe the two women were lovers. Blanche drowned in 1861, and after that Christabel went to live with her sister and brother-in-law. She published her epic Melusina in the 1870s, and then faded into quiet obscurity. At the university, Roland mentions he has reason to believe Christabel and Randolph corresponded, and wants to know if Maud knows anything about this.
Maude explains that the collection resulted from the papers Christabel willed to her niece, May Bailey, at the time of her death: it includes a diary written by Blanche Glover, but no diary belonging to Christabel, and few letters. Maud feels a connection to Christabel because she is a descendent of May Bailey; the other scholar who is interested in the poet is an American woman named Leonora Stern. Maud doesn't think it was likely Christabel would have been interested in Ash, but suggests he look at Blanche's diary for the period surrounding the breakfast meeting. The diary contains a brief mention of the breakfast and then, beginning a few weeks later, describes Christabel receiving and writing many letters, which she seems secretive about. There is also mention of a "Prowler," which seems to cause tension in Blanche and Christabel's relationship. After that the diary cuts off abruptly, leaving Roland wondering if these subsequent events hint at interactions between Christabel and Randolph.
Roland questions Maud about the letter writing and the visits, which she confirms have never been fully identified, although there are a few possible guesses. Impulsively, Roland shows Maud copies of the letters he found and admits he took the originals. She concedes that it would be significant for the scholarship surrounding both poets if a relationship was uncovered. She suggests he continue to look for any other relevant materials, and offers to let him stay at her home. There, Roland reads some of Christabel's fairy tales. Maud explains that additional papers related to Christabel remain at Seal Rock, but that the current George Bailey dislikes scholars questioning him or interfering with his home. She suggests that they can at least go and see the house, and Roland agrees.
The next day, Roland and Maud visits Christabel's grave, and then explore the grounds near Seal Court. Roland encounters a woman in a wheelchair, and helps her. She turns out to be Joan Bailey, who lives at Seal Court and invites them back to the house. As they chat with Joan and her husband George, George discusses his lack of interest in Christabel or poetry in general, as well as his irritation with Leonora having visited to try and find out more. However, at his wife's urging, he does agree to show Roland and Maud the room where Christabel lived. In the room, they are struck by a collection of dolls. Guided by her memory of a poem that refers to dolls hiding a secret, Maud investigates and uncovers a package of letters between Randolph and Christabel.
Maud, Roland, George, and Joan discuss what to do with the letters; Maud and Roland are eager to read them, but George is hesitant. He says that he will wait for further advice on how to proceed, but they do look at the final set of letters, which indicate that Christabel and Randolph agreed to have no further contact, and he returned her letters at her request (allowing for the complete set). As they leave, Maud and Roland discuss how there would be eager buyers (especially Cropper) if anyone else learns that the letters exist. They agree that neither of them will tell anyone else, in hopes of delaying the news from reaching Leonora, Cropper, or Blackadder.
The novel's opening highlights the tension between research as drudgery that often spans decades, and research as an enthralling quest for discovery and new knowledge. Roland is frustrated by the lack of opportunities and autonomy in his life and work; he feels both infantilized and emasculated, since he is dependent on both Blackadder (a paternal mentor/father figure) and Val (a woman whom he is no longer in love with) for the small amount of economic security he has.
Roland's interest in the "old-fashioned" approach of close textual analysis and digging through dusty archives shows that he is something of a traditionalist in his approach. This methodology is explicitly contrasted with Fergus, who is positioned as both more professionally and sexually successful. Notably, Fergus is immediately able to refer Roland to the right contact, indicating his web of scholarly connections, but the fact that the scholar in question is also a woman he has had an affair with shows that Fergus's personal charm and charisma likely facilitate his success, unlike Roland's more earnest and conventional approach.
The early portrait of Roland as dutiful, rule-abiding, and somewhat passive makes his decision to steal the letters even more surprising. Roland violates a scholarly code of ethics which would suggest that his main priorities should be providing public access and opportunities for collaboration in order to further knowledge. Instead, he follows the dictates of his own desire: a desire to solve the mystery, and a desire to possess exclusive access to this knowledge. The fact that the mystery seems to be an illicit love affair Ash engaged in offers a parallel to the way Roland behaves: he becomes a man obsessed with a secret passion which he cannot initially share with anyone.
The choice to bring Maud into the mystery is a spontaneous and somewhat surprising one. At this point, Roland has uncovered significant information without telling anyone why he is interested, and he could have made excuses or invented lies about his interest in Christabel LaMotte. His decision to make Maud an ally in his quest might be motivated by the curiosity and desire that is hinted at even in their early encounters. It might also be a respectful recognition that the research Roland now needs to conduct is psychological as much as it is factual. He has not only knowledge of the events of Ash's life, but he also has intimate knowledge of Ash's values, mindsets, and perspective, nurtured from years of reading Ash's writings. When it comes to Christabel, he might be able to learn the facts but he will not be able to replicate that sense of who she was. Maud can be the one to offer that perspective. Given that the quest is also about unpacking how two people felt about one another, it makes sense that Roland recognizes a need for a partner to bounce ideas off of, and balance his speculations.
Almost as soon as they pair together to investigate, Roland and Maud reach the key next step of the quest by uncovering the collection of letters. The letters offer both a tantalizing physicality, as documents both writers touched and handled, but also a balanced perspective offering both sides of the story. The introduction of both Maud and Christabel are necessary to transform the quest into one where a variety of voices will be heard. The contrast between the fates of the two poets is significant: in the century after his death, Ash has been celebrated, treated as a legitimate and valid source of scholarly study, and become almost a fetish for scholars like Cropper who hope to collect and memorialize everything related to him. Christabel, on the other hand, died in obscurity and relative poverty, and the scholars who work on her still have to vigorously defend her significance. Investigating the affair offers different but complementary aims to both scholars. Roland has the potential to finally offer something new when it seems like everything there is to say about Ash has already been said, and Maud has the chance to bring attention to a writer who otherwise risks being hidden in obscurity and known only to niche academic circles.