In the third installment in Bayer's projected Marlborough Gardens Quartet (City of Childhood, The Metaphysics of Sex--both 1992), the author's imaginary Victorian novelist--the now-adult Emma Forster--seems a captive creation whose torrid life is merely an excuse for clumsy opinions on sex and history. In prose that strains to be authentically period as it relies on a few vividly detailed images--the food served and the women's gowns worn at the ball Edward Forster gives on his wedding anniversary--two 20th-century archivists continue their study of Emma. Drawing on letters, Emma's novels, and diary entries, as well as ``newly'' discovered material, the fictional authors--Rachel Lowe and Harriet Van Buren--now examine Emma's life as she moves from late girlhood in 1842 to early middle age in 1856. Quotes from Freud head most chapters, and sexuality and the subconscious are the obvious themes of the heroine's life. Neither particularly likable nor interesting, Emma, in 1842, is still pining for the handsome German, John Lustig, who fell in love with her cousin Vanessa. When brother Edward marries Victoria Thwaite, daughter of common shopkeepers, Emma is outraged and determined to wreck the marriage (``I wished the couple at the altar every misfortune''), and this she effectively does. She is no less vindictive when brother William, idle and dissolute, marries Celeste, a whore with a heart of gold. A visit to Florence to see her dearest childhood companion, Darius, in the hopes that he will marry her, turns into a brief period of repentance as--realizing that Darius is gay, and that she herself might have homosexual tendencies--Emma acknowledges her past cruelties and follies. Finally, however, the old coolheaded Emma reappears, as, only minimally affected by her mother's death and Darius's murder, she soon excitedly contemplates an intriguing proposal. A lively if lurid pastiche of detail, incident, and fact that jars rather than jells.