Like a typical Victorian decorator, British novelist and story-writer Byatt (Sugar, 1987; Still Life, 1985) crams into her...

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Like a typical Victorian decorator, British novelist and story-writer Byatt (Sugar, 1987; Still Life, 1985) crams into her latest novel enough literary bric-a-brac and furnishings to have a work rich in material but overwhelming in effect. The setting is contemporary Britain, where two academics try to establish the links between Victorian poets Randolph Ash and Christa bel LaMotte (loosely based on Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti). When Roland Mitchell, who has written his dissertation on Randolph Ash, discovers two letters by Ash that hint at a relationship between Ash and LaMotte, he decides to pursue the connection on his own. For one thing, the field of Ash studies is crowded--and dominated as well by the American and immensely well-funded Ash scholar, Mortimer Cropper--and for another Roland's personal and professional life seems at an impasse. He travels up to Lincoln, where the university's women's studies department, headed by Dr. Maud Bailey, has much LaMotte material. Maud, a sometime feminist who is ashamed of her beauty, is a descendant of the LaMotte family, and Roland soon confides in her. The two decide to work together to resolve the mystery. But as they follow the clues they unturn, their fellow academics become suspicious--and envious. At the end, there is a nicely satiric academic version of a climactic police chase, complete with a graveyard stakeout where all is revealed, villainy punished, and true love acknowledged. Uncompromisingly literary and prolix. There are pages of poetry and prose written by Byatt's fictitious characters, and her pace is leisurely and at times ponderous. But within this overabundance are telling sketches of contemporary academic life and a warm sympathy for its men and women. No easy read, then, but worth the effort--especially for those who miss those wonderfully intelligent, if exasperatingly encyclopedic, novels of the past.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 1990

ISBN: 0679735909

Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1990