Val attends a horserace with Euan, the lawyer whom she met through work and has now started seeing. Euan introduces her to Toby Byng, another lawyer who also co-owns the racehorse Euan has invested in. Toby casually mentions that he is currently working on a case where American and British scholars have gotten into a dispute over the right to purchase a collection of love letters between two poets. The case is complicated; legally, the current Lord Ash seems to hold the copyright to the letters written by Ash, while George Bailey likely holds the copyright to Christabel's letters. Listening to this, Val realizes that Roland has been pursuing a scholarly discovery, not just having a love affair with Maud, as she had assumed.
In France, Maud and Roland have lingered after reading Sabine's journal. They do not know what happened to Christabel's baby, or whether Ash ever knew of it. They have vague ideas of going back to Nantes when Ariane returns from her holidays. Roland is also aware that he has very little to go back to, since he has likely permanently ruined his relationship with Blackadder and Val. The sexual and romantic tension between Roland and Maud has also increased, although neither of them have acted on it. Meanwhile, Leonora has obtained a photocopy of Sabine's diary from Ariane and persuaded Blackadder to accompany her as she pursues Roland and Maud. When they arrive at the hotel, they encounter Cropper, who has also made his way there. Cropper informs them that they have missed Roland and Maud. Indeed, Roland and Maud caught sight of Blackadder and Leonora and realized the two scholars had tracked them down. They hurried to get away before any of the three others could catch up with them. Cropper is determined both to obtain the letters, and to find out what happened to the child.
Returning to England, Roland moves in with Maud in her flat in Lincoln. In October, they receive a phone call from Euan inviting them for dinner. When they arrive, Euan is joined by Val and by Toby Byng. Euan confirms that the copyright to Christabel's poems and stories is held by Maud's family, and suggests that she might also legally hold the copyright to the letters written by Christabel. At first, Maud thinks this is unlikely, but Euan reveals that with Toby's help, they have located a document dictated by Christabel on her deathbed formally leaving her papers and copyrights to May Bailey. Since Maud is the current descendent of May Bailey, she may have a good claim to all of the letters, as well as the copyright to the ones written by Christabel. Euan admits that the claim will likely be disputed by Sir George, and also that it will be tricky to use the document without calling attention to Toby having found it. However, Euan is eager to represent Maud in her claim to the letters.
Later that evening, as Maud and Roland discuss whether she should pursue a claim to the letters, they receive a phone call from Beatrice Nest, who is greatly agitated. She has become suspicious due to Cropper making frequent visits to look at Ellen Ash's journal, and that day, Cropper visited again, accompanied by Hildebrand Ash. She overheard them speaking and is now convinced the two of them intend to dig up the grave of Randolph Henry Ash to inspect the contents of a box that was buried with him. Maud speaks with Roland, and they decide to consult Euan, who suggests they all go to London and meet with Beatrice in order to plan how best to proceed.
The narrative breaks to include a short excerpt from Ellen's diary as she contemplates what to do with Ash's papers and letters, and an excerpt from Cropper's biography, describing Ash's burial, and mentioning that his coffin contained a box with unknown contents, presumably documents. It then moves to an account of Ellen's final days with Ash. While he was seriously ill, Ellen received a letter from Christabel, who had learned Ash was dying and asked Ellen to give him an enclosed and sealed document. Ellen hesitated for a long time about what to do. She has known about the affair between Christabel and Ash since 1859, when he confessed to her that he had not been alone in Yorkshire. At that time, Ellen explained to her husband that she had been visited by Blanche who had given her copies of the stolen letters and told her about the relationship. While Ellen hesitates about whether or not to pass the letter to her husband, she goes through his desk and finds a letter he wrote to Christabel but never sent, imploring her to tell him what became of the child. He was able to track her down in France, and learn from Sabine about her pregnancy, but has never been able to find out what happened after she gave birth. His scene at the séance was made in hopes of forcing her to confess what happened.
Ellen burns the draft of the letter to Christabel, and then encloses Christabel's unopened letter in a box, along with the letters Ellen and Ash exchanged during their courtship, a bracelet made of his and her hair, and blonde hair she retrieved from inside his watch. Before his death, she had followed his delirious instructions to open the watch, and found that it contained a lock of blonde hair. Ellen is haunted because after a long and impassioned courtship, she realized that she was terrified of sex after she and Ash married. The two of them never consummated their relationship.
Back in the present day, Roland returns to his London flat, which has fallen into disrepair after his landlady was unexpectedly hospitalized. He takes care of the many stray cats she was typically responsible for, and is shocked to find that he has received letters offering him several academic jobs. He rereads some of Ash's poetry, realizing the complexity of understanding he now brings to it, and also realizes that he finds himself inspired to write creative as well as academic work. A few days later, Roland, Maud, Euan, Val, Blackadder, and Leonora all assemble for a meeting at Beatrice's house. Euan explains his conviction that Maud is the owner of the manuscripts of all the letters, as well as the copyright to those of Christabel. He suspects that Hildebrand Ash is prepared to sell Cropper the copyright and the ownership once his father dies and he inherits. Maud discusses her uncertainty and desire to protect the letters but also benefit Joan Bailey. Roland finally admits the initial discovery of the letters more than a year earlier, as well as his and Maud's decision to keep the project a secret as it unfolded.
Most pressingly, they need to figure out what to do about Cropper's planned grave robbery. He seems to want to uncover the box, and then, after Hildebrand has inherited, pass it off as having been found somewhere in the house and then sold to Cropper's collection. Euan has been able to learn that both Hildebrand and Cropper are staying at an inn not far away from the church where Ash is buried. Since it would be difficult to go to the authorities with mere suspicion, he suggests they try to catch Cropper in the act. Since Val and Euan are unknown to Cropper, they can check in to the same inn, and keep an eye on him.
Hildebrand and Cropper inspect Ash's grave, preparing for their plan. They plan to dig overnight and leave the grave looking as undisturbed as possible, and then depart immediately for the United States. Late at night, they start digging, ignoring the gathering storm at first. As the storm gets wilder, Hildebrand says they should take cover, but Cropper refuses to stop. Endangered by falling trees, but clutching the box he has retrieved from the grave, Cropper is overtaken by the Roland, Maud, and their allies, who have been alerted by Val and Euan. They all go back to the hotel together, with safety being the most immediate concern. Despite Beatrice's misgivings, Cropper opens first the box, and then the sealed letter contained inside. The letter includes a photograph of a young woman on her wedding day, and a letter from Christabel to Ash, explaining that she gave birth to their daughter secretly in a convent in France. She had confided in her sister, Sophia, and arranged for Sophia to adopt the baby and raise her as her own. Thus, May Bailey, always believed to be Christabel's niece, is actually her daughter. Christabel was always afraid that if she told Ash about their daughter, he and his wife might try to take her away, but now as he lays dying, she cannot keep the secret any longer. The picture is May on her wedding day; she has also recently given birth to a son, who seems to have inherited the creative talents of his grandparents.
The group is overwhelmed by this discovery, but saddened that Ash never knew of his daughter. They retire to their rooms, exhausted by the events. Alone together, Roland and Maud discuss their feelings for each other. Maud is afraid of the love and desire she feels, but Roland persuades her that they can find a way to make a future together, even as they both also explore their intellectual ambitions. They make love for the first time.
In the postscript, Randolph Henry Ash meets May Bailey as a little girl. He speaks affectionately with her, and asks for a lock of her blonde hair. He asks that she tell her aunt that she met him, but May does not remember to give the message. Thus, Christabel dies wrongly believing that Ash never met their child. The secret is also never uncovered by the scholars, because they wrongly interpret the blonde hair they find in the grave to belong to Christabel.
After fleeing France in order to narrowly avoid the other scholars and having to explain themselves, Maud and Roland find themselves trapped in a state of limbo. There are no more leads or clues that point them towards being able to solve the mystery, and it seems that they might be stuck in a state of never knowing any more than they do at the current time. Having come so far and learned so much, only to be left with a final glaring question and a series of bleak potential answers creates a sense of anti-climax and paralysis. In a surprising twist, it is Val and her new partner Euan who regenerate the quest by providing a new source of momentum. Euan was initially positioned as potentially a rather sleazy parody of the wealth and stability that Roland was unable to provide Val with, but he shows himself to be genuinely curious, kind, and helpful. Indeed, his desire to participate in solving the quest and helping Maud secure legal rights to the letters is perhaps the only participation that is not in any way self-interested. Because his career is in no way connected to literary research or scholarship, he will not profit from his participation, and is helping because he wants to.
The increasingly high stakes means that Roland and Maud eventually have to abandon the intimacy of pursuing a secret project known only to the two of them. Euan and Val are the first of the unlikely allies who join them, but as the threat of what Cropper may do increases, all of the other scholars join together in collaboration to stop them. There have been many tensions amongst the members of this group before and it seems surprising to see them working together, but they are all united by a fierce love of figures from the past, and a need to treat them respectfully. The physical desecration of Ash's grave symbolizes the psychological desecration Cropper commits by pillaging everything around the poet and using it for his own ends. Whatever their differences, the group that comes together to support Roland and Maud agrees that he must be stopped.
Another surprise unveiled at this final stage of the narrative is Roland's abundant job offers. For all the time he spent worrying about his future, it is when he turns his attention to confidently pursuing a project with no expectations around outcome that he finally receives the affirmation he craves. Indeed, his lack of a solid academic position may have been part of what enabled him to pursue the project that has led to so much discovery: as Suzanne Keen writes, "An academic outsider makes a better truth-finder than a qualified researcher in romances of the archive. More intuitive, more prone to risk-taking, more powerfully motivated to know... the quester in the archives is less bound by conventions" (pg. 30). Roland's suddenly inspired reading of Ash, and his composition of his own poems further speaks to Roland's increased self-confidence and bright future. He no longer has to focus only on what he assumes he has always wanted: new possibilities are open to him, and he can consider reinventing his whole vision of who he is.
Reveals of what has happened in the past lead to both increased and decreased sympathy amongst increasingly ambiguous characters. Ellen committed a potentially unforgivable act by denying Christabel's request and allowing Ash to die without learning what she wanted to share with him. The sad secret at the heart of her own marriage perhaps makes Ellen more sympathetic: in an opposite way to Christabel, she has also been a victim of rigid rules around sexuality and gender. While Christabel had to keep a secret and treat her sexuality and experience of motherhood as something shameful, Ellen was cut off from an understanding of her capacity for sexual pleasure for so long that it permanently warped her. The information that Ash and Ellen's marriage was never consummated may make his affair more forgivable; at the very least, it adds another layer of complexity to a series of choices made by people trying to do the best they could. Likewise, Christabel allowed Ash to live for years believing his child was dead, but she did so out of fear and a bitterness created by her own suffering and loneliness. Secrets and trauma that have touched the lives of so many are all encapsulated in the simple box that gets buried in Ash's coffin.
However, after that box is retrieved in a climactic and melodramatic moment, the novel's falling action offers a peaceful and hopeful resolution. Despite the emphasis on ideas being unsettled and disrupted, as Tim Gauthier points out, "Byatt cannot prevent herself from creating an entirely coherent narrative in which all of the questions raised in the text are answered" (pg. 25). While the aim was to confront and potentially punish Cropper, the whole group ends up cozily meeting in his room (some even wearing his pajamas) in order to finally unveil the last part of the mystery. In light of being able to finally know, all other differences fall aside, and all of the other scholars become somewhat complicit in Cropper's scheme, since instead of insisting on returning the box to the grave, they decide to open it. The information that Ash and Christabel's daughter went on to live a long and happy life, and that her descendants became Maud's family gives a sense of meaningful conclusion to the affair that has gradually been charted out. Christabel and Ash only got a brief window of time together, and both of them spent much of their lives haunted, alone, and confused but their love affair was not in vain. Aside from their works of literature, they created something together.
Perhaps it is this bittersweet awareness of how much the two poets missed out on that pushes Roland and Maud to finally overcome their doubts and hesitations in the novel's final scene. While they admit to loving each other, they are also aware of the challenges their relationship will face, and their own doubts and insecurities. For Maud in particular, who has always been guarded and independent, the idea of being with someone she could fully lose her heart to is practically terrifying. But having come to the end of their quest and seen out the story of their two authors to its conclusion, Maud and Roland are finally empowered to follow their hearts. While it might surprise readers to see it, it is the figures from the past who have taught the modern characters how to be free.