Professor Mortimer Cropper is visiting England, and covertly photographing some documents related to Ash: a series of notes to his goddaughter. The letter had come to Cropper's attention through a bookseller, and he has gradually been tempting the woman who owns it to either sell it to him, or at least let him see it. Cropper is obsessed with expanding his collection of materials related to Ash through any means necessary. He resents the documents held by Blackadder and Beatrice Nest, who has been working for decades to produce a scholarly edition of Ellen Ash's journals.
Randolph Henry Ash married Ellen Best, the daughter of a clergyman, in 1848 after a 15-year courtship. The marriage was delayed since Ash's income as a writer was uncertain, and many interpreted his poem Ragnarok to express doubts about the Christian faith. Once married, Randolph and Ellen seem to have enjoyed a happy and stable marriage, but it was unclear to what extent passion was involved. Nonetheless, there is no record of Ash ever having been involved with another woman, either before or after his marriage.
Cropper grew up in an elite family in New Mexico, where his intellectual ambitions were encouraged from an early age, and his interest in Ash developed from a letter sent by Ash to Cropper's great-grandmother, Priscilla Penn Cropper. Cropper has retraced all of Ash's significant travels, and also written a biography of the poet. As part of his visit, he hopes to acquire more material for the Stant Collection, and he also pressures Beatrice into agreeing to meet with him. Beatrice began her scholarly career fascinated by Ash, especially his love poem Ask to Embla, but was encouraged instead to focus on producing an edition of Ellen's journal. Her work on Ellen, and the wives of other prominent Victorian male authors, has given her a modest scholarly career, but she is considered old-fashioned amidst a new focus on feminist scholarship.
The day that Beatrice is supposed to meet Cropper, Roland comes to her office, asking if Ellen Ash ever mentioned Christabel in her journal. Beatrice is able to uncover only that Ellen read Christabel's poem about Melusina when it was published in 1872, and reluctantly agrees to let Roland review this section of the journal. As they arrange this, Cropper comes to the office, and Roland is quick to brush off his exploration of Christabel as a mere passing interest. From Ellen's journal, he is interested to note that she praised the Melusina poem.
Returning home, he finds a letter from Joan Bailey, informing him that she and her husband have decided to allow him and Maud to read the letters together. She suggests he plan to stay with them for a few days in order to do so, preferably in early January. While he tries to figure out how to arrange this trip without alerting anyone to his find, Val returns home accompanied by a handsome lawyer named Euan MacIntyre, whom she has been working with. Val is irritable and tries to pique his jealousy, but Roland is able to soothe her.
A few months later, Roland and Maud have assembled at Seal Court to review the letters. They each read the letters related to their poet, making systematic notes they plan to compare later. Roland is surprised to note the sense of unusual urgency and confusion he finds in Ash's letter. Since Maud lives close by, she drives home after their first day of reading. At her flat, she finds two letters, one from Fergus and one from Leonora. The one from Fergus flirtatiously tells her about his scholarly projects, and states that he knows she and Roland are investigating something together. The letter from Leonora suggest potential collaborations, and hints at a close and potentially intimate relationship between the two women. The next day when Maud returns to Seal Court, Roland startles her in the garden, embarrassing both of them. As the snow worsens that evening, Joan suggests Maud also spend the night. As she prepares for bed, Roland unexpectedly runs into her outside the bath and is shocked by the rush of attraction he feels when they touch. This awkward encounter is heightened by Joan's assumption that the two of them are in a relationship, even though Roland corrects her.
The narrative then shifts to include a fairy tale by Christabel, and highlights from the correspondence between she and Randolph Henry Ash. They discuss literature, their own current projects, religion, and the day-to-day details of their lives. Christabel at one point suggests that it might be best if they stopped corresponding since it could look suspicious, but Randolph wonders at a strange turn in the tone of her letters. It is later revealed in another letter that Blanche had been intercepting the letters and answering them herself, trying to break off the relationship between Randolph and Christabel. However, this incident leads to the two of them arranging to meet in person, and a short time later, Randolph admits that he is in love with her. The two of them meet occasionally in the park, and once at Christabel's house, wrestling with their desire and uncertainty about how to proceed. The narrative then includes Ash's poem Swammerdam, which he composed while the two of them corresponded.
The discussion of Cropper and Beatrice Nest further broadens the novel's representation of different approaches to scholarship and research. They seem in some way to represent the two traps Roland risks running into: Cropper has abandoned ethical principles because he is driven by his own ego and an all-consuming hunger to own and control everything related to Ash. While Cropper's sneaky manipulation in hopes of getting his hands on Ash's letters is presented as detestable, his action is actually not very different from what Roland has also done. Cropper serves as a warning of what Roland's possessive desire and insatiable desire could drive him to, if he is not careful.
Cropper also allows Byatt to introduce class and national critiques into her novel. Much of Cropper's power comes from the seemingly limitless financial resources he has access to, and his confidence also stems from having grown up in a wealthy and powerful family where he always felt entitled to have whatever he wanted. By contrast, Roland's own class background has left him feeling disempowered in the world of academia, and even amongst characters like Maud. Cropper, as an American hungry to acquire artifacts related to British culture and history and take them back to America, also represents a kind of American cultural imperialism driven by the wealth of the country.
Beatrice, by contrast, represents an equally fierce devotion that drives her virtually into a kind of hermit life because she takes on a project she seems unable to distance herself from. As virtually the only person championing a historical figure who most people only care about because of her relationship to Ash, Beatrice has a lonely and isolating career. She is also contrasted with researchers like Leonora and Maud because Beatrice is not interested in reclaiming the life of a Victorian woman as being secretly rebellious. Byatt carefully introduces the idea that while the work of feminist researchers has brought figures like Christabel and Blanche into the public eye, it has not actually been open to celebrating or championing all women. Women like Ellen Ash, who seems to have lived a dutiful and conventional life, and women like Beatrice Nest, who choose to study her in a dutiful and conventional way, seem to be excluded from seemingly inclusive research that is actually quite narrowly focused and exclusionary.
The reading of the letters at Seal Court introduces two parallel narratives of increasing desire into the novel. In the modern narrative, Maud and Roland spend more time together, in close quarters and working intimately on a project shared only by them. While their shared research and respect for each other's knowledge builds a kind of intellectual intimacy between the two of them, Byatt is also clear that this is matched by a sexually charged physical attraction. The bath scene offers an opportunity to playfully introduce a theme that stretches across the modern and historical storylines. In the Melusina legend at the heart of Christabel's most famous poem, a husband spies on his wife in the bath by peeking through the keyhole, only to be horrified by the discovery that she has a fish tail (similar to a mermaid). Roland, with more honorable intention, peeks through the keyhole to see if Maud is still in the bath, but is then surprised by her falling over him, and by contact with her very human flesh.
Meanwhile, the letters also sketch out the growth of both intellectual and romantic affinity between Christabel and Ash. They feed off of each other's mutual knowledge, creativity, and brilliance, but also quickly move into a relationship that might not be strictly platonic. Christabel quickly expresses her doubts about how this secret correspondence might threaten her reputation, partially because Ash is a married man, but also because during this time period it would be suspicious for a woman to correspond with any man she was not related to. Interestingly, the most immediate threat to Ash and Christabel's growing relationship is a private threat, not a public one. Blanche is positioned as certainly Christabel's close friend, and possibly her lover. Certainly, she is jealous and suspicious, and her instinct is to try and put a stop to Christabel's growing relationship. Not unlike the scholars with their discoveries, Blanche wants Christabel all to herself, and she perceives Ash as a threat, not as a source of inspiration and happiness to her friend.